The Decline of the Left in South East Asia

Kevin Hewison, Gerry Rodan


In this essay we intend to examine the decline of socialism and communism in Southeast Asia and, for the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on the modem countries of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, and their previous incarnations as colonies, with Thailand (previously, Siam) being the non-colonial exception. In brief, our argument is that socialism and communism (as closely related political movements) have, in recent times, lost much of their political and economic attractiveness. However, we will show that the Left has been significant, giving much momentum to the development of non-state political space (what we will term civil society) in these countries. We suggest that this was particularly the case in three periods: 1920s-1930s, 1940s-1950s, and the 1970s, when the Left played a pivotal role in expanding the arena of political activity. The defeat of non-state movements saw civil society greatly reduced or even expunged by authoritarian governments, which especially targeted socialists, communists and labour and peasant organisations. We will go on to suggest that in the contemporary period, the political space associated with civil society is again being created in the societies of Southeast Asia.

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