Civil Society and State Policy in Southeast Asian Countries: Examples of Authoritarian Control and Civil Society’s Responses

We receive conflicting reports on Burma regarding state policies toward civil society. The military government seems to allow certain privileges to some established non-governmental organizations (often those with close ties to the junta). But the regime’s policies toward independent organizations vary. On the one hand, the state will shut down or refuse permission to certain associations it deems inappropriate or threatening. On the other hand, it may try to control certain organizations in less visible ways by subsuming their programs or influencing their leadership. However, the state cannot police and control every corner of civil society, and as a result, some civil society associations (sometimes unregistered) can find space to work under the radar.

The semi-authoritarian governments of other countries, such as China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, have some similar regulations and controlling policies in place to prohibit and “protect”—in rhetoric—their own civil societies. This investigation seeks to find a lens with which to view Burma’s own repressed, adaptive, and multifaceted civil society.

1. Vietnam:

The world has recently learned of a string of arrests of high-profile Vietnamese pro-democratic lawyers, as well as a number of ordinary bloggers in the country. CNN documents the story of Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who was arrested for ten days until she agreed to sign a written agreement to stop blogging. Her blog contained everyday complaints about life and work as well as calls against China’s increased economic influence in her country. She is charged with “abuse of democratic freedoms and infringing on the national benefit” (Boycoff). Other bloggers arrested had advocated democratic reforms. Vietnam still denies its citizens freedom of political expression.

The former Fulbright scholar and now celebrity lawyer Le Cong Dinh, as well as fifteen other dissidents, were recently arrested for their involvement with “hostile forces.” Dinh had long advocated for legal reforms, and his ideas were tolerated. In fact, as Hayton explains, “The range of voices that the Party is prepared to listen to has definitely expanded.” However, his membership in an organized opposition party sealed his own fate as well as that of the party’s leadership. The familiar pattern of patron-client connections and favors in Vietnam’s legal system ensures that “there is enough flexibility and gaps within it to allow all kinds of activities…The result: economic dynamism and systemic corruption” (Hayton).

The international community, working together with Vietnam’s Communist Party, is seeking a consensus on the status of civil society organizations. A proposed Law on Associations has not yet been approved, and all organizations must register with the appropriate government ministry. If its goals are promoting good governance or legal reform, “the key to ‘lobbying’ is to find some part of the state which supports your agenda and then work through it,” what Hayton calls the practice of pha rao, or ‘fence-breaking’.

2. China

All NGOs in China must be “affiliated and sponsored by a government unit.” Similar to the practice of finding government support in Vietnam, China expert Sharon Liang calls the first step of the registration process “finding a mother-in-law” (a patron within a state ministry who will support an organization’s approval) (11). That mother-in-law must be a government body under the State Council of at least the provincial level, and the NGO is also required to pay high registration fees, depending on which level (local or national) it wants to operate (Liang, 12).

Due to the immense difficulty of the registration process, overseen by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, many associations resort to simpler registration as a commercial enterprise. This status makes seeking donors much more difficult, however, and has exposed many organizations to charges of tax evasion or “tax irregularities” (HRW, 2010). For example, the Party convicted the leader and financial manager of one legal advocacy group, Open Constitution Initiative, with evading taxes on a grant from Yale Univeristy (HRW, 2009).

Other civil society organizations find themselves subverted by state control. The Public Security Bureau directly ordered Friends of Nature, an environmental protection agency, to fire an executive whom the Communist Party viewed as a dissident (Xiabo, 19). Friends’ quick follow-through of this order is an obvious example of state manipulation. Aizhi Action Project, an HIV prevention/education organization, seems to have struck a deal with the Party for its survival (ibid). After the state banned the organization and imprisoned its leader, the international community objected, and the US was about to withdraw a promised $10 million in aid to China’s own efforts combat AIDS. In the end, the Party backed down, allowing Aizhi to continue its work, only now under stricter scrutiny.

The “mother-in-law” sponsor or supervisory unit, which every civil society organization is required to have, can also exercise co-opting influence over their sub-sponsor. Liang describes the case of Xiao Peilin, founder of the Training Services Center, a school for mentally handicapped children (12-13). When she founded the school, the All China’s Women’s Federation provided funding and support, and she reported to them regularly. When she tried to expand her activities, however, the sponsor refused the request. Liang sums up the state of civil society organizations in China:

Their future depends heavily on whether their leadership has any official background or useful social relationships, and whether they are able to cooperate with the government over a period of time. That is why some organizations continue to operate in a sector that is banned to others, and why a particular organization may be allowed to operate during a certain period, but later on is banned (12).

3. Indonesia

The fall of Suharto in 1998 holds many lessons for the international community and specifically for the transition to democracy in Asian countries. Aspinall’s description in Civil Society and Political Change in Asia also provides a valuable warning for privatization of wealth in crony states, such as Burma:

After the fall of Suharto, it became apparent that the appearance of the strong state in Indonesia had been deceptive…in fact primarily dependent on military repression in dealing with challenges from civil society…After the democratic breakthrough, therefore, the state was increasingly prey to predatory attack as numerous political and business forces sought to gain access to its resources for their own rent-seeking purposes…the establishment of…local “authoritarian enclaves”…largely follows the pattern established under the prior authoritarian regime (88).

So the old power relations among the elite remained generally unscathed, despite the immediate democratic reforms in government.

4. Singapore

Singapore appears to lack a history of civil society culture. That’s not to say there are not active citizens, but the government largely distrusts public participation in government policy. In 1997, PM Goh Chok Tong launched Singapore 21, a publication calling for the citizenry to find solutions to five dilemmas unique in Signapore’s societal context. Most see the 21 as an attempt to appease citizens’ calls for increased involvement in decision making by offering up an apolitical version of civil society. This is what one scholar refers to as “gestural politics” (Lee, 110).

Moreover, many argue that certain cultural boundaries restrict civil society’s free expression. For example, the government did not interfere in the internal power struggle of a women’s group called AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research), which discusses issues like sex and religion, but it put a moratorium on their sexual education program, a topic deemed inappropriate by many conservative Singaporeans (Wong-Anan). Similarly, People Like Us, a gay and lesbian rights group, was denied permission to hold a public forum.

In 2000, the government endorsed the construction of the “Speakers Corner” in a public park, ostensibly to offer a forum for public debate. However, speakers must register at least one month in advance and are reminded of their parameters beforehand, what Lee calls “OB (“out-of-bounds”) markers” (109-110). In this way, the government’s “gestural politics” can lure out dissidents and internet bloggers while also providing the illusion of freedom of speech.

5. Malaysia

The Malaysian government seems receptive to public opinion, but, like in Singapore, it generally discourages an active citizen polity, instead trying to defuse and appease civil society. It appears that Malaysian civil society has never been allowed to take center stage and yet their advocacy has resulted in subtle shifts in normative values and in state policy. Yet, the government displays a tendency to gradually co-opt movements or to outright suppress them.

Two examples serve to clarify: firstly, in the 1970s – 1980s dakwah Islamic revival movement; and secondly, in the 1980s – 1990s Reformasi coalition, advocating for political reform. In the first case, the government co-opted the influence of the country’s largest NGO, the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM, by its Malay acronym), led by Anwar Ibrahim (Weiss, 272-273).¹ The civil society group promoted Muslim ethics and cultural education. As a result, the government bolstered its own Islamic ideology and adopted more pro-Islamic policies by creating more religious education programs.

The more outspoken Reformasi movement in the following years was met by harsher government crackdown. When they pushed for democratic reforms and cabinet changes, the government utilized the Internal Securities Act (est. 1968) to arrest and detain opposition activists without trial, on charges of illegal assembly, Marxist tendencies, and inciting racial animosity (Weiss, 266). In 1994, the government finally banned Darul Arqam, a movement advocating independent shari’a (Islamic law) communities. Viewing this shift as a threat to the secular state, the regime shut the movement down (Weiss, 271).

Finally, the government seems to tolerate civil society activities in the sectors of HIV and women’s rights, which it avoids, but it clamps down on overtly political associations. The realm of women’s rights has seen considerable expansion of open dialogue with government ministers (Weiss, 276-277). Weiss explains, “Much of policy advocacy in Malaysia, as in neighboring Singapore, consists of staking out and gradually extending the boundaries of what is considered acceptable” (275).


These case studies have a lot to teach us about emerging civil society under authoritarian or semi-authoritarian rule. Each state-society relationship is unique, and yet all non-governmental groups are trying to carve out their own space while increasing their abilities to work with their governments in an engaged and productive dialogue.

¹ Anwar would later step down to join politics and go on to become the Deputy Prime Minister under Mahathir Mohamad, until he was sacked by political rivals and now stands trial for unsubstantiated sodomy and corruption.

Works Cited

Aspinall, Edward. “Indonesia: Transformation of Civil Society and Democratic Breakthrough,” in Muthiah Alagappa, ed. Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004): 82-93.

Boycoff, Pamela. “Blogging Behind Vietnam’s Bamboo Cyberwall,”, June 25, 2010. Accessed at <> July 28, 2010.

Hayton, Bill. “The Limits To Political Activity In Vietnam,” in Forbes, July 13, 2010.

Human Rights Watch. “China: Advocates Freed, Restrictions on Civil Society Remain,” at <>, August 24, 2009. Accessed July 27, 2010.

— . “China: Chokehold on Civil Society Intensifies,” at <>, April 12, 2010. Accessed July 27, 2010.

Lee, Terence. “The Politics of Civil Society in Singapore,” in Asian Studies Review 26, March 2002: 97-117.

Liang, Sharon. “Walking the Tightrope: Civil Society Organizations in China,” in China Rights Forum (3), 2003. Accessed at <> July 27, 2010.

Weiss, Meredith L. “Malaysia: Construction of Counterhegemonic Narratives and Agendas,” in Muthiah Alagappa, ed. Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004): 259-288.

Wong-Anan, Nopporn. “Women’s Group Coup Awakens Singapore Civil Society,” in Reuters, May 7, 2009. Accessed at < 39467420090507> July 27, 2010.

Xiabo, Liu. “The Rise of Civil Society in China,” tr. Jonathan Kaufman and Stacy Mosher, in China Rights Forum (3), 2003. Accessed at <> July 27, 2010.

This entry was posted in Burma/Myanmar, Civil Society, Southeast Asia, Vietnam. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Civil Society and State Policy in Southeast Asian Countries: Examples of Authoritarian Control and Civil Society’s Responses

  1. Pingback: 2010 in Review | Where the Buffalo Roam

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