Southeast Asia is home to approximately 655 million inhabitants, is densely urbanized (47% live in urban areas) and witnesses rapidly expanding peri-urban zones. Political scientists refer to the political systems of the eleven modern states that make up the region as “imperfect democratic regimes,” “liberal authoritarianisms,” or “illiberal democratic” regimes (Bourchier 2014)1. Historically, all of these countries have experienced a variety of colonial occupations or influences and, after independence, they were involved in the superpower struggles for global influence that marked the Cold War. Southeast Asian states were then supported by the non-communist block in their orientation towards engaging in authoritarian policies of development (Ford 2013: 9) that resulted in the demise of the left-wing and of mass movements in general (Hewison and Rodan 1996). The mid-1980s was a period of transition, marked by further integration of several of these countries into global production systems, exposing their regimes to stronger surveillance by international bodies. Northern governments increasingly directed international development aids to NGOs rather than to governments (Edwards and Hulme 1996). Defining civil society according to liberal policies, autonomous from the institutional system of the state, they encouraged its role as an agent of democratization (on all these historical developments, see Michele Ford 2013: 7-11). However, regional states tended to both accommodate and fragment these new social forces, through partial or total administrative and societal incorporation, or through preemption, bureaucratization, co-optation, or selective exclusion (Rodan 2013: 22-38).
The various regimes adopt and adapt the idea that so-called “Asian values” (initially articulated by the Singaporean and Malaysian governments, especially Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister of Malaysia in 1981-2003; 2018-2020) imply a congruent link between a strong State and economic growth. However, the ruling regimes show some flexibility in implementing development programs, and the use of liberal policies of orientation is superimposed on the archetypal Asian developmental state. These policies endorse the privatization of public services and their concentration in the hands of individuals located at the crossroads of public and private sectors. Their agents aim for the accumulation of capital, through the simultaneous exercise of deregulatory mechanisms and tighter control over governmental decision-making processes.
From the 1970s onwards, various movements emerged from “civil society” in order to propose other political projects as alternatives to those promoted by state and corporate development agencies. These movements were nevertheless constrained by state interventionism in development policies and crony capitalism. Working-class based organizations remained weak and the independence of middle-class organizations was limited. At the end of the 1997 financial crisis, along with the rise of transnational hydro-agro-extractivist corporations and the confirmation of supply chain capitalism (Tsing 2009), the tendency towards the transnationalization of activism accelerated. A series of movements (Third World Network, Focus on the Global South, Asia Pacific Research Network, etc., see Caouette 2006; Tadem et al. 2020) have emerged, targeting neoliberal policies perceived at the regional level as forms of governance and cultural models imported, or even imposed, by Western countries. Since the 2010s, these movements have participated in the “third wave” (della Porta 2008) of global citizen mobilizations, marked by an emphasis on calls for direct democracy and anti-austerity demands in the face of increased social and economic polarization.
However, in the face of illiberal policies, normative pressures and material constraints, social groups are led to adopt different modes of mobilization, which have different degrees of strategy and are articulated with more or less systemic critiques. Indeed, they find opportunities to articulate their struggles but also have to deal with processes of disarticulation and interruption, or with the incorporation of ideas, values and norms that limit the critical scope and the mobilization itself. To show this plural dimension of mobilization and to highlight what facilitates or, on the contrary, constrains it the contributions selected here present different degrees and modalities of politicization of mobilizations.
Rosalia Sciortino produces a narration in the form of a portfolio, articulating the eighteen contributions of a project she has been piloting, entitled “From Fear to Resilience: Visual Storytelling of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia”. The project, carried out by the public venue Sea Junction in partnership with Beyond Food, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) and Bangkok Tribune, illustrates different sources of mobilization in the context of survival in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic. The initiatives at the heart of the surveys are weakly politicized by the social actors. They are carried out in an emergency and in reaction to a total social problem, which affects the lives of people even in their privacy. The analysis does, however, bring out the political dimension at work in the crisis affecting the societies studied: it crystallizes polarizations between different social groups, increases discrimination and highlights the shortcomings of public policies and State services in charge of social protection. It mirrors cooperation strategies, solidarity reflexes and outbursts of altruism. Finally, it points out grey areas, in which social actors are confronted with doubt and uncertainty, including moral ones, and try to find solutions to transform their fear and anger into hope and collective strength.
This search for solutions can promote reflection by social actors on the political sources likely to improve their situation. The project led by Mary Racelis and the Engaged Anthropology research group (Ateneo de Manila University) she has founded, examines how urban poor communities and a collective of researchers in the Philippines think in a participatory way on how to formulate local needs and formalize requests in order to gain more visibility and to attract adapted financial and material help from the government.
The participatory approach is also at the heart of Gloria Truly Estrelita’s contribution. As coordinator of a project entitled “Seri Ingatan 1965”, she has organized since February 2021 a webinar series that brings together over a hundred participants every month, in the aim of expressing, exploring and reconstructing the memory of the victims of the 1965 anti-communist repression in Indonesia. The testimonies of relatives and descendants of the victims of massacres, of people who have suffered imprisonment and stigmatization, take all their force in a space of collective speech. The omnipresent political question is rarely raised head-on, but implicitly arises the question of the contemporary political treatment, in particular governmental, which is made of this historic turning point.
The confrontation between activists and authorities is much more frontal and sustained over time in the case of online social activists, on which Wija Wijayanto works. To assert their pro-democratic aspirations, activists disseminate their ideas online, deconstruct fake news and uncover government strategies to limit democratic rights while stigmatizing certain segments of the population. In the face of these militant initiatives, the government is setting up cyber troops, which work in coordination with the police and do not hesitate to punish the authors of contents deemed to be anti-republicans.
Finally, the articulation of the means of mobilization is made perceptible in the direct confrontation of the Burmese people with the military junta, since the coup d’état orchestrated on February 1st, 2021. This confrontation took place progressively, first manifested sporadically and gropingly, then in spurts, before taking on a massive dimension which, faced with fierce repression, raises both fear and hope embedded in a potential civil war.
Within these movements, the articulation2 between the mobilization and their critical claims is not linear. Without a de facto continuum, these mobilizations mark out a spectrum that runs from weak signals such as dissent, heterodoxy and nonconformity, to disagreements, complaints, individual initiatives of refusal and protest, to critical dialogue within social groups, the organization of activist actions, the founding of movements, the coordination of ramifications, reticulations and federative enterprises. Within this arc, some mobilizations, like the Anti-Covid performances collected by R. Sciortino or the urban poor initiatives documented by M. Racelis are not priorly articulated to critics and, rather, they highlight struggles for survival and recognition through innovative means, participatory dynamics and solidarity engagements. The double stance of mobilization against the authorities’ inaction or misfunction and the fact that the mobilized groups rely on state resources and political institutions is echoed and emphasized in the mobilizations ethnographied by T. Estrelita and W. Wijayanto. While critical to the authorities’ public action and offering an alternative in reaction to power holders, mobilized groups are simultaneously engaged in a dialogue with some segments and actors of the government and the administration in order to defend civil liberties, pluralism or popular memory. The cases documented by the anonymous contributor in Thailand and by the collective research group in Myanmar depict extreme situations of mobilization, where dialectic strategies are used, like hiding (actions at night, with camouflage clothing in Thailand, clandestine networks in Myanmar) and hyper-visibilizing (graffities in Thailand or frontal armed insurrection in Myanmar).
A singular aspect that the different contributions make surface is the necessity of analyzing the Southeast Asian cases of political mobilization by leaving politics. In contexts where the political is not completely decoupled from other dimensions of the social, such as religion or the domestic space, we show the interest of articulating the study of collective mobilizations with a set of social regulation systems that are micro-localized and not institutionally organized. These systems constitute in several aspects what could be called “local regimes for the protection of cohabitation”, comprising for example the practical systems of bio-socio-symbiosis between living species; vernacular ethical and religious standards; customary authority networks; and non-commercial transaction channels. Knowledge of these different regimes allows a better understanding of para-institutional dynamics, the diversity of normative registers and the frequent decoupling of standards/practices or collective obligations / individual loopholes. It thus makes it possible to link the analysis of political dynamics to social phenomena.
This step aside from the political also enables to better understand gaps that may appear between ideas and values, which emerge for instance when dominant narratives conveyed by state development programs, corporate agencies, and media are incorporated by the populations and frame the norms to which they refer.
There is also a young democracy (Timor Leste) and an absolute monarchy (Brunei Darussalam). This generality of a contemporary Southeast Asia made up of an authoritarian majority and rare democratic governments should not, however, mask the great vitality of national political scenes and their own rhythms, the progress and setbacks of democracy and their corollary: the back and forth movement concerning fundamental rights and freedoms.
Tania Murray Li recalls and emphasizes: “Building on Gramsci's insights, Stuart Hall (1996: 142–143) played on the dual meaning of the term 'articulation' to further specify the practices needed to propel critique from emergent to effective politics: articulation as making explicit, and articulation as forging a connection. He emphasized that the second aspect —forging a connection— is far from guaranteed, because every conjuncture condenses multiple formations of power, allowing social groups to make quite different kinds of sense of it” (Li 2019: 35).
Bourchier, David, Illiberal democracy in Indonesia: The Ideology of the Family State, London, Routledge, 2014.
Caouette, Dominique, Thinking and Nurturing Transnational Activism in Southeast Asia. Connecting Local Struggles With Global Advocacy, Institut de recherche et débat sur la gouvernance, Paris, May 2006.
Della Porta, Donatella, Eventful Protest, Global Conflicts, Aahrus, European University Institute, Presentation of the plenary session of the conference of the Nordic sociological Association, 2008.
Edwards, Michael et David Hulme, « Too close for comfort? The Impact of Official Aid on nongovernmental organizations », World Development, vol. 24, n° 6, June 1996, p. 961-973.
Ford, Michele (ed.), Social activism in Southeast Asia, London and New York, Routledge, 2013.
Hall, Stuart, « Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity », in David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (eds.), Stuart Hall: Critical dialogues in cultural studies, London et New York, Routledge, 1996, p. 411-440.
Hewison, Kevin and Garry Rodan, « The Ebb and Flow of Civil Society and the Decline of the Left in Southeast Asia », in Garry Rodan (ed.), Political Oppositions in Industrialising Asia, London, Routledge, 1996, p. 40-71.
Li, Tania Murray, « Politics, Interrupted », Anthropological Theory, vol. 19, n° 1, 2019, p. 29-53.
Rodan, Garry, « Southeast Asian Activism and Limits to Independent Political Space », in Michele Ford (dir.), Social Activism in Southeast Asia, London and New York, Routledge, 2013, p. 22-38.
Tadem, Eduardo C. et al., « Deepening Solidarities beyond Borders among Southeast Asian peoples. A Vision for a Peoples’ alternative regional integration », UP CIDS Discussion Paper, April 2020.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt, « Supply Chains and the Human Condition », Rethinking Marxism, vol. 21, n° 2, 2009, p. 148-76.