The study of social movements in Southeast Asia (as elsewhere) has trouble evaluating contention in formal democracies that are, nevertheless, periodically and often intensely violent. This has been a problem both because of how our theory developed (i.e. the apparatus for examining civil protest was until recently different from that used to evaluate more violent contention) and in terms of the relatively unique historical conjuncture of democratic norms and institutions coexisting with fundamental conflicts, often over first political principles. The last decade of scholarship has done much to eliminate the segregation of protest studies from the study of other modes of contention—most famously in the Dynamics of Contention research program, but also in innovative methodologies inspired from that program designed to capture the contingent nature of mobilization trajectories and contentious forms. These perspectives begin with contentious acts, but leaves the form of their escalation—through subsequent contentious interactions—an open matter.
A fair amount has been written about this theoretical development, and so in what follows I’ll concentrate on the particular historical conjuncture that so many contemporary Southeast Asian countries face, and the political consequences for contention.
To start, it probably bears mentioning that one of the more durable discussions in democratization theory essentially boils down to an argument about whether social or institutional developments are most responsible for the adoption and stability of democratic practices. On the social side, those working with some of the basic premises of modernization currently argue that social and economic development provide essential conditions for democratization (often) by lowering the costs of distributional conflict to the point where people will allow mediation by open ended processes of election and policy-making (rather than by taking matters into their own hands). In this view, democratic institutions grow strong as people use them—but they use them because they feel more able to accept the costs of losing any particular round in a democratic struggle.
The institutional perspective takes an opposite view—that the conflicts that exist can be moderated by the right institutional set up, and repeated engagements with institutions will generate the kind of trust that will encourage compliance with democratic norms and ultimately lower the costs and stakes of conflicts.
But what if neither perspective were accurate (or, perhaps better: what about places where neither perspective accurately describes conditions on the ground)? What happens when persistently formidable distributional conflicts coexist with democratic institutions and practices—or with the attempt to establish them? Modernization theory has an easy answer: the institutions should fall apart. The institutional approach suggests that some tinkering and robust external support should help the institutions gain traction—a baseline premise for a lot of democratization policy. In Southeast Asia, what we see instead is robustly supported institutions of democratic practice (often via international pressure and mediation) that nevertheless fail to contain social conflicts. The consequences are important both for the stability of the regimes in question and (our main purpose here) for the way political contention is likely to unfold.
I’ll concentrate on two consequences that seem most important at the moment. The first is a persistent duality in the character of contentious interactions (both from people challenging authorities and from state actors’ responses). The second is a repeated form of conflict about what democracy means, what its use will be in the resolution of social conflict, and conditions under which extraordinary modes of struggle might make sense (or be anticipated).
One consequence of formal democracy is the assumption that key policy issues will ultimately be worked out in relationship to some idea about the general will. In consequence, all moves in any contentious interaction will have at least two targets: an adversary and a more general audience whose opinion will matter in the resolution of a grievance. This should be as true for state actors as for claim makers (a potentially reasonable position can lose popular support if activists riot, or state officials use excessive force). The audience that democracy constitutes should moderate political contention. But where distributional and other conflicts remain pitched the concern to appeal to public audiences is cross cut by the need to win the struggle, and rather than choosing one or another horn of this dilemma (or splitting the difference between the two) dual styles of contention evolve that attempt to have it both ways. Secret and clandestine direct attacks on adversaries combine with general and peaceful claim making against adversary positions. State leaders may subcontract repression out to hit squads and vigilante groups—and, in the wake of atrocities that attract public notice, launch human rights investigations that seem never to turn up much new information. Movement organizations will often develop underground or armed support teams, without publically acknowledging an association between peaceful demonstrations and more direct attacks.
What might this look like? It might look like the unsolved murder, in the Philippines, of scores of Bayan Muna Party activists in the middle years of the last decade (the group had lightly concealed ties to communist movement organizations but registered as a formally accepted political party). Similar unsolved murders of local activists in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have been presented as aberrations—departures from the central political logic of these relatively new democracies as opposed to key elements of the political balance. I am suggesting, however, that they are central to that logic, and that the development of political undergrounds, so often associated with severe repression, acquires a separate, but sustaining logic, in these mixed democratic settings.
A second consequence involves disputes about democracy and how they contribute to political conflict. Democracy is, in fact, a dual concept, referring in its most liberal meaning, to a process that produces a political leadership, and in another sense, to a system of limitations on government—the so called package of good government practices that repudiate corruption, enshrine equality before the law, and prevent capricious policymaking. Across Asia—but most sharply in places where the popular masses are most autonomously involved in electoral processes—these two meanings have been decoupled from one another, providing a persistent and replicated master-frame for contemporary contention in the region.
We see the conflict most clearly in Thailand’s struggle between red and yellow shirts. The red shirts, a largely poor and rural base that voted for and still support Thaksin Shiniwatra, and benefitted from populist policies, want their votes counted, and are unmoved by allegations that their president has acted against the mandates of good governance. Removing him from office generates outrage that democratic processes, and their votes, had been set to naught (in the same way that Joseph Estrada’s removal outraged urban poor supporters who rallied at the EDSA 3 protests in 2001).
Thai yellow shirts, more urban, more wealthy, and more linked to the established power structure, also feel justified by democracy—in this case, the idea of limited government, usually expressed as good governance: that elected officials need to conform to standards of conduct and can be removed when they don’t. In both Thailand and the Philippines, this argument has led to extraconstitutional changes of government, in the guise of defending standards of government.
In both places—and elsewhere—this matters because the ambiguous relationship between democratic modes of conflict resolution (primarily elections and public policy making) sits alongside some of those same deeply divisive conflicts we discussed earlier. This means on the one hand, that activists read democracy through the lens of these conflicts, rendering the basic foundations of their political arrangements contested territory. It also means that modes of struggle and levels of state repression are likely to be out of proportion with the apparent stability of democratic political arrangements.
How the two coexist will exert a major influence on the character of contention.