Democratization, National Identity, and Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia presents social scientists with a laboratory for the analysis of the relationship between democratization, national identities, and the consequences for foreign policy behavior. Types of nationalism, modes of nation-building, ethnic makeup, colonial heritage, the structure of governing coalitions, the shape and extent of interest and civil society organizations as well as regime types and their levels of democracy differ widely. Since the 1970s, the common wisdom in democratization studies was that a consensus about national identity is a prerequisite for democratization.1 Recently this issue has drawn further discussion. Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan see a widely shared sense of national identity as a requirement for successful democratic consolidation, confirming Rustow’s sequentialist view (national identity formation first, democratization later).2 For Southeast Asia, James Putzel used national identity to explain why democratization is more difficult in Indonesia and Malaysia than in the Philippines.3 In contrast, democratization scholars have rarely analyzed the consequences of political liberalization and democratic transition for foreign policy behavior, and there are few works on the interface of international relations and comparative politics for Southeast Asia.

Below I suggest that the implementation of democratic procedures and practices in Southeast Asia has helped to manage national identity problems, while the levels and quality of democracy have also been affected by issues of national identity. Thus, the transition from authoritarian rule to electoral democracy (first transition) has often opened-up political space for democratizing national identities in Southeast Asia, whereas the lack of progress in the second transition, from democratically elected governments to liberal and fully consolidated democratic regimes, has complicated mutually shared agreement about identity with consequences in conflicts about their content and comprehensiveness as well as their impact on domestic and foreign policies.

Democracy, Democratization, and National Identity

The age-old political science debate on what democracy is or should mean fills more than one library.4 In empirical democratization studies, democracy is typically understood in procedural terms. The minimalist standard definition (“polyarchy”)5 is that citizens have regular opportunities to participate in the selection and replacement of political leaders through, primarily, free elections; electoral competition is robust; and basic political rights and civil liberties are protected. Yet there is a productive contemporary debate about whether a minimal and essentially electoral understanding of democracy is sufficient or if democracy should also include the presence of a substantial rule of law and constitutionalism.6

This article adopts the model of “embedded democracy,” which puts forward a procedural definition that goes beyond a minimalist (or “electoralist”) understanding of democracy.7 At its core lies the assumption that democracy is a set of rules and institutions that can be analytically disaggregated into different partial regimes that each fulfill specialized tasks for the functioning of a democratic political system based on the rule of law and constitutionalism (that is, liberal democracy). Embedded democracy “consists of five partial regimes: a democratic electoral regime, political rights of participation, civil rights, horizontal accountability, and the guarantee that the effective power to govern lies in the hands of democratically elected representatives.”8 If the rules and practices in any of the partial regimes are insufficiently established or cannot fulfil their functions appropriately, the political system deteriorates into some form of “defective democracy”—or even authoritarianism.

While democracy is a particular type of political regime, democratization is a process of continual adjustment over rights and relationships in a political regime.9 In transitions from authoritarian rule to a political democracy, there are two transitions:10 first from autocratic governance to the installation of a democratic government, and only then, second from democratic government toward the effective functioning of a democratic regime, i.e., democratic deepening and consolidation. Accomplishing the first transition, as in Myanmar in 2015 and Malaysia in 2018, is no guarantee for a successful second transition. Democratization is neither a linear nor a teleological process. The consolidation of democracy in a particular country does not preclude the possibility that this process can slow down, come to a halt, or be reversed.

There is no consensus on national identity.11 “Modernists” such as Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson consider nations modern constructs and that states use a broad repertoire to promote “national identity,” such as language policy, symbols, flags, coats of arms, national anthems, public celebrations, commemorative and national holidays.12 In contrast, “perennialists” such as Anthony Smith claim a larger role for primordial identities in shaping modern nations.13 They posit that ethnic identities predated modern nations and shaped the formation of national communities. Overlapping with this is the debate between primordialists and constructivists, particularly relevant in research on ethnic politics, ethnic identities, and ethnic conflicts.14 The primordial view argues that the backbone of national identity is composed of a feeling of common blood, biological linkage or a subjective belief in the citizenry’s common descent, history, and collective destiny. Constructivists stand in opposition by claiming that national identity cannot be taken as merely inherent and permanent: Nations are not something natural, but social constructs (“imagined communities”) closely interwoven with emotions and difficult to objectify.15 National identities are not fixed solidarities, but ongoing constitutive processes.

This contribution is based on a definition of national identity, which from a territorial point of view has the state dimension in mind, but which includes both individual and collective aspects of identity. In this sense, it follows Rozman’s definition of national identity “as beliefs about what makes one’s state unique in the past, present, and future,”16 and the constructivist (or “modernist”) view that nations and national identity are modern concepts, that have been introduced to Southeast Asia as a consequence of Western colonialism and the emergence of anti-colonial forms of political mass mobilization. While state and non-state elites in Southeast Asia regularly tried to “historicize” their conceptions of the nation and national identity, I treat national identities as empirical constructs: they are essentially imagined communities (and beliefs about what characterizes such communities and makes them “unique”).

In contrast to certain strands in IR and foreign policy research, national identity is not a key concept in democratization studies. Despite the global rise of national identity issues in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the triple transformation (economic, political, and national) in East Central Europe,17 democratization research has rarely explored the contents of national identities or how they change. Rustow was, perhaps, the first to provide a systematic theoretical discussion of the relationship between national identity and democratization.18 He saw national unity as necessary for successful democratization; it can only work if the great majority of citizens accept the boundaries of the political community as legitimate.19 For Rustow, the agreement about national identity meant that “the vast majority of citizens in a democracy-to-be must have no doubt or mental reservations as to which political community they belong to,”20 while political systems failing to meet the precondition of national identity should not proceed with democratization.21 In the 1990s, Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan  recalled the problem of lack of national unity and identity for the successful establishment and functioning of democracy, arguing that democracy as a form of government presupposes the existence of a political community recognized as legitimate by those affected by power. A democratization process is facilitated if it does not have to be pursued in parallel with a process of nation-building and if only one nation exists within the state borders. When national identity is at issue, democracy cannot resolve contestation over the identity or borders of the polis or demos.22

Yet, these works are silent about what happens to national identity once democratization has occurred. They can explain why ethnically or nationally divided societies struggle with the institutionalization of a stable and working democracy, and how national identity problems affect democratization, but cannot say much about the impact of democratization on national identities. They focus on nationalism or national identity as the independent variable and democratization the dependent variable but neglect how democratization affects national identities.

Another, even smaller, strand of literature examines the relationship between democratization, national identity problems, and foreign policy. Mansfield and Snyder turn the “democratic peace theorem”—essentially arguing that democracies do not fight each other—on its head and argue that transitions from authoritarian to democratic governments often lead to weak, unconsolidated democratic institutions.23 The combination of increasing mass political participation and weak political institutions creates the motive and the opportunity for both rising and declining elites to play the nationalist card to rally popular support against domestic and foreign rivals.24 As a result, incomplete democratizers with weak institutions become more belligerent, not less. However, Narang and Nelson find that “the … statistical relationship between incomplete democratization and war is entirely dependent on the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire prior to WWI.”25

Finally, some qualitative works such as Il Hyun Cho’s analysis of national identity, democratic consolidation, and security dynamics in Taiwan and South Korea find that countries in which national identity is contested and politicized under incomplete democratic consolidation, are more likely to initiate belligerent foreign policy behavior. The very democratic process, which involves regular electoral cycles and a heated political environment, provides a key channel by which nationalist discourse is framed and amplified. Insufficiently consolidated democracies are particularly vulnerable to this dynamic because effective institutional checks and balances are often replaced with ‘‘nationalist outbidding’’ among domestic political actors, making foreign policy concessions virtually impossible.26 However, Jennifer Lind’s study of democratic transitions and foreign policy behavior contradicts Cho’s argument that xenophobic nationalism in East Asia contributed to bellicose foreign policies during democratic transitions.27

The Origins of National Identities in Southeast Asia

While it might be argued that Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, and Thailand have been developing into nations over several centuries and contemporary national identities are conditioned by preexisting identities, it was essentially Western colonialism that created modern nations in Southeast Asia by, first, “imposing centralized and unified territorial states,” and then “reactively generating the anti-colonial nationalist movements which imbued the populations of these states with stronger national loyalties.”28 Western powers—first Portugal and Spain, then the Netherlands, Great Britain, and France and, finally, the United States—embarked on a series of colonial missions between the 16th and 19th centuries, establishing empires typically in a piecemeal fashion, but by 1910, all of Southeast Asia except Siam (since 1939: Thailand) was firmly under colonial rule. Colonial powers introduced the idea of clearly demarcated national borders to the region and separated Southeast Asia into clearly delineated “homogenous” political entities, which masked the many internal differences that existed in their colonies.

Yet, somewhat ironically, the consolidation of colonial rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries kindled the flame of nationalism in the region. There had been resistance against colonialism in the past, but nationalist movements as a form of modern mass politics emerged in the 1880s, first in Spanish-Philippines, and then in the rest of Southeast Asia.29 They developed generally from four historical sources.30 First, religious and cultural movements, for instance, the Young Man’s Buddhist Association in Burma (1906) and the Sarekat Islam in Indonesia (1912). Second, secular nationalist movements, often led by western- educated students and intellectuals, such as the “illustrados” in Spanish-Philippines; students from the University of Rangoon that formed the Dobayma Asiyone ("We Burman") society in 1935; and Dutch- educated Indonesians who formed the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI) in 1927 popularized the idea of one Indonesia with the slogan “One People, one language, one country.” In response especially to religious-nationalist groups, movements of ethnic minorities emerged, demanding a sovereign state for their own ethnic group but remaining outside the mainstream nationalist movements. Fourth, social radicals and communist movements in many areas of Southeast Asia, particularly in Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indochina.

Colonialism and anti-colonial struggle became the formative movements of nationalism in Southeast Asia. While state elites in Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand engaged in ethnic majority nation-building, defining nationhood by language, religion, customs, and traditions of an “ethnic core group,” they often continued to use colonial constructs of identity.31 Even when the name of the new country did not refer to an ethnic core, state policies nevertheless were biased in favor of “ethnic core groups,” for example Javanese in Indonesia, Khmer in Cambodia, and Kinh in Vietnam, or Tagalog- speakers in the Philippines.32

Still, some authoritarian government also adopted elements of a “civic” national vision, defining the nation as an association of people with equal and shared political rights, irrespective of ethnic attributes, e.g., Indonesia, where the ideology of Pancasila translated Javanese ethnic values into a universalistic civic language, and Malaysia, where the government began in the 1980s to modify its Malay-centric, ethno-cultural vision of Malaysia (Bangsa Melayu) that had connoted the potent symbol of mono-ethnic Bumiputera33 communal solidarity since independence by articulating the new national identity of Bangsa Malaysia, or multi-ethnic “united Malaysia,” in which Malays and non-Malays were developing a sense of “we-feeling.”34 In communist Laos and Vietnam, the communist cum nationalist parties propagandized an authoritarian nationalism in which communist elites claimed that they themselves were the objects of patriotic loyalty, and that it was they who articulated the true will of the collective nation. Even more than in most other Southeast Asian countries, national identity is defined through the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle against France, the United States and (in the case of Vietnam) China. In the case of Thailand, which was never colonized, “national identity was constructed and reconstructed differently from other Southeast Asian countries.”35 Nationalism was a powerful instrument for traditional rulers to consolidate their rule since at least the 1900s. King Vajiravudh (1910-1925) in particular created the slogan “Nation, Religion, King,” which centered on ethnic Thai structures, to define national unity.36

Such forms of identity politics contrast with the state’s conception of national identity in ethnically diverse Singapore, where ethnic Chinese make up 74.3% of the population (Malays: 13.4%; Indians: 9.1%). Since independence in 1965, the government has promoted a “citizen multi-culturalism,”37 a culturally neutral concept of citizenship, which acknowledged the legitimacy of each of the diverse ethnic identities within the city. Policies favored particularistic cultural elements of the Chinese majority group—the “Speak Mandarin” campaign (1979), the promotion of “Religious Knowledge” education in public and private schools, or the promotion of “Asian values” and “shared values” in the 1990s.38 Nonetheless, the ruling People’s Action Party has fostered a high level of acceptance for a Singaporean national identity and nation-state.

Finally, in Timor Leste, which achieved independence in 2002, a non-ethnical conception of national identity was primarily defined against Indonesian rule of the territory from 1975 to 1999. Despite the diversity of the ideas of nation, different attitudes towards Indonesia as the new colonizer, and the lingering bitterness of the 1975 civil war between revolutionary, moderate, and conservative parties, Timorese leaders (some in hiding or imprisoned by the government of Indonesia) were able to forge a unifying vision of the nation. As Leach argues, crucial was the decision from the 1980s to promote a vision of the nation as one underpinned by national unity across ethnic lines (there are more than 30 languages and dialects and at least 14 ethnic groups), the struggle for self-determination, and a distinct identity based on Catholicism, which became a symbol of cultural identity and faith-based resistance to Indonesian assimilation.39

Democratization and Democracy in Southeast Asia

In the mid-1980s, almost no state in Southeast Asia had successfully solved its “national identity problem” in a way that scholars such as Rustow, Linz, and Stepan consider a necessary condition for (successful) democratization. Nonetheless, authoritarian regimes were replaced with democracies in the Philippines (1986), Thailand (1992), and Cambodia (1993). In the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Indonesia (1999) and then Timor-Leste (2002) also joined the regional wave of democratization.40 Some of the remaining autocracies in the region have also undergone important changes. In 2010, the military in Myanmar initiated a process of gradual disengagement from day-to-day politics that led to the election of a democratic government in 2015. In Malaysia, opposition parties won a historic election victory in May 2018 and toppled the Barisan Nasional coalition, which had been in power since 1957.

Even though there has been no single mode of transition in Southeast Asia, a key feature of democratization in the region was the ability of the elites of the ancient regime to dominate the transition or, at least, negotiate significant political concessions.41 Most importantly, in all cases except East Timor, democratic change coexisted with continuity in the military, civil service, and the judiciary. Therefore, old power structures and established patterns of interaction between state apparatus and society often remained to a large extent unchanged. However, there is considerable variation in the outcomes of these processes of democratization, as revealed in the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI), which excludes all countries that were members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) by the year 1989 or with a population of less than two million.42 Since 2006, the BTI evaluates the quality of democracy, market economy, and governance in 137 countries. It provides qualitative expert assessments and numerical measures for 17 criteria and a total of 49 individual indicators and is published every two years. All indicator values are based on expert surveys and assign scores ranging from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest). Its democracy index is based on the model of embedded democracy (as described above), although the project also provides scores for other indicators, including “state identity” (see below), party system and civil society, and social cohesion. Table 1 compares democracy scores for each of the five partial regimes of the embedded democracy for each Southeast Asian country.


In the Philippines, Indonesia, and East Timor, the first transition from authoritarian to democratic governments was successful, whereas in Cambodia (in 1997) and Thailand (in 2006 and 2014), the backsliding of democracy after the first transition culminated in coup d’états and resurrection of authoritarianism. Table 1 shows that democracies perform better on indicators of “free elections” (partial regime A) and “effective governance” (partial regime E), as well as “freedom of association and assembly” and “freedom of expression” (partial regime B) than on those indicators that measure the enforcement of civil liberties or the independence of the judiciary (partial regime C), and on ensuring horizontal accountability (partial regime D). The gap between the electoral components of embedded democracy in partial regimes A and B—or what Robert A. Dahl terms “polyarchy”—on the one hand, and partial regimes C and D (the “liberal” in liberal democracy), on the other hand, correlates with the findings of other studies.43 A comparison of the BTI 2006 and BTI 2018 score shows that in spite of long-term positive advances of democracy (compared to the decades from 1950 to 1990), Southeast Asian democracies remain weakly institutionalized, “illiberal,” and vulnerable to political polarization.

 Democratization and National Identity in Southeast Asia

The qualitative (expert) assessments in the BTI also provide hints at a potential relationship between democratization/democracy and national identity in Southeast Asia. One of the 49 indicators is “state identity,” which asks: “To what extent do all relevant groups in society agree about citizenship and accept the nation-state as legitimate?” This indicator captures well what Rustow called “national unity” and approximates the concept of national identity generally used in democratization studies.44 Table 2 compares the scores of the BTI 2006 and BTI 2018 for ten Southeast Asian countries. In most countries, a large majority accept the legitimacy of the nation-state, according to the expert assessments. But it is only in Singapore that there is no relevant social group that does not accept the nation-state as legitimate and “all individuals and groups enjoy the right to acquire citizenship without discrimination.”45 In contrast, Myanmar is the only country in which the legitimacy of the nation-state is “frequently challenged” and citizenship rights are “withheld from entire population groups.”


According to the BTI expert survey, the majority of Indonesians share a strong sense of nationalism and support the nation-state, though there are important exceptions (i.e., Papua). Unlike the authoritarian regime, the current democratic regime does not deny any particular groups (i.e. ethnic Chinese) access to citizenship. As a state with around 87% Muslim inhabitants, Indonesia has traditionally struggled to maintain a balance between promoting Islamic values and the rights of non-Muslim minorities. In recent years, Islamist organizations that insist that Islamic scripture is of higher value than the constitution, have been able to inject their view into the national mainstream. The more liberal media environment, inter-party competition, and the formation of new “identity coalitions” comprising religious, nongovernment, security, and party elites helped drive this development.46 The Indonesian experiences support both the assumption that the transition from authoritarian rule to electoral democracy is possible without prior agreement on what national identity specifically means to different people, and that democratization creates new political and societal spaces for renegotiating national identity. However, it also shows that the ongoing sociopolitical struggle over the relationship between Islam and national identity creates tensions between Islamists and the political leadership with the potential to destabilize the democratic process. As Ziegenhain notes, all Islamic parties together have received only between 20 and 30 percent of the votes in parliamentary elections since 1999.47 Despite their rather limited appeal with voters, Islamist actors have been fairly successfully in penetrating nationalist and secular political parties. However, the future role of Islam for the country has yet to be decided.

Similarly, a large majority of Malaysian citizens accept the nation-state as legitimate, though Malay-Muslim identity strongly shapes the procedures and policies of the state. Bumiputera and, especially, ethnic Malays dominate the key political institutions, civilian service, and SOEs. This Malay predominance draws criticism from Indians and Chinese, approximately 30% of the population, who report feeling like second-class citizens. The clash between more conservative, Islamist understanding of Malaysia as a nation and liberal, civic visions for Malaysia inside the ruling Barisan Nasional led to a number of factional splits and the reconfiguration of elite and party alliances in the 2000s. Together with a successful strategy of externalizing deflecting anti-Chinese sentiments – a classic trope of Malay Muslim politics – away from the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia and towards China, these developments drove Malaysia towards an opposition victory in 2018. Yet, similar to Indonesia, Islamist movements are also gaining ground in Malaysia.48

In the case of Timor Leste, the limits of anti-colonial visions of the nation were exposed after independence in 2002 as new fissures and tensions developed.49 However, some of these developments, for example, the 2006 political crisis which began when a section of the East Timorese armed forces claimed they had been treated less favorably than those soldiers and officers from the eastern part of the country, turned out to be temporary. The 2006 crisis, but also the tensions between the western districts (Loro Munu) and the eastern part (Loro Sae) of the country have more to do with rivalries between dominant political leaders, or reflected a general weakness of “stateness,” rather than the failure of national identity formation. This could not only have a negative impact on the future development of Timorese democracy, but also on the relationship between Timor Leste and its two neighbors, Indonesia and Australia.

Despite its multiethnic and multilingual composition, the large majority of citizens in the Philippines identify with the Filipino nation, though many Muslims in Mindanao see themselves more as Moro (the Spanish word for Moor, the Reconquista-period term used for Muslims) than Filipino and adhere to the idea of Bangsamoro (Moro nation). Following the transition to democracy in 1986/87, the government has made concessions in a multiculturalist direction, so as to offer significant autonomy both to indigenous cultural communities, whose rights are explicitly recognized in the 1987 constitution, and to the Mindanao Muslims.50 While several peace agreements between the government of the Philippines and insurgent groups have been settled, implementation has typically been complicated by Philippine politics and political resistance within Congress.51

In Burma the struggle for national identity and how 135 officially recognized ethnic groups should be accommodated, has been a key challenge to state- builders since the inauguration of the union in 1948. It contributed to the rise and persistence of a “praetorian state,” in which the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) dominated politics, the economy, and society since 1962.52 In spite of the installation of a democratically elected government in 2016, the official concept of the nation-state still revolves around Buddhism, the Burman language, and the Burman (or Bamar) ethnic group, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of the population. Many ethnic minorities do not support this concept or even reject it openly and have been fighting for the acknowledgment of their ethno-cultural identities for decades. Following the end of collegial military rule in 2012 and especially since 2016, there has been growing mobilization by ultra- nationalist Buddhist groups, such as the Patriotic Association of Myanmar (MaBaTha) against the Rohingya.53 Undoubtedly, political liberalization since the end of military rule has allowed extremist groups to gain traction with their anti-Muslim platform. The case supports the hypothesis that political liberalization and democratization empower ethno-nationalist movements, religious extremism, and political entrepreneurs of ethnic violence.

Traditionally, Khmer identity manifests itself by separating from Vietnamese influences. Most Cambodians are Buddhists, though there are smaller ethnic minorities such as Muslim Cham, ethnic Vietnamese. and Montagnard minorities living in Cambodia’s northeastern provinces. The longstanding enmity between Cambodia and Vietnam and the Vietnamese occupation from 1979 until 1985 fostered strong anti-Vietnamese resentments among Cambodians. From 1979 to 1991, the ruling CPP was dependent on military and economic patronage by Vietnam, while a strong “anti-Vietnamism” was one of the few things that had held the fragile opposition alliance together. Today, anti-Vietnamese sentiment is omnipresent among opposition politicians and even in civil society. Especially during election times, the competition between the CPP and the opposition, which accuses the government of collusion with Hanoi, fuels hostile sentiments against the “Yuon” (a derogative term used for Vietnamese in general).54

The state-sponsored conception of national identity in Thailand is based on a constructed notion of “Thainess,” which has both assimilated (forcefully) and integrated other minorities into the mono-ethnic state. The biggest challenge to the legitimacy of the Thai nation-state continues to come from the Malay-Muslim insurgencies in the four southernmost provinces of Satun, Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. While the conflict had been described as “waning” in the 1990s, it reemerged when in the early 2000s, the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra tried to impose greater central control over a region traditionally dominated by his main opponent, the Democratic Party.55 From 2004, when the insurgency had intensified to late 2016, almost 7,000 people were killed and at least 12,000 were wounded due to violence in the region.56 The southern conflict in Thailand is, perhaps, the most impressive Southeast Asian example of the relationship between incomplete democratization, unsolved national identity problems, and the onset of domestic armed conflict.

The empirical evidence seems to support the view that national identity problems were and still are an obstacle for successful democratization in Southeast Asia. Indonesia (1998-2000), Thailand (since 2004), Myanmar (especially since 2016) and Timor Leste (in 2006) experienced a sudden outburst of ethnic violence and armed unrest during or after the (incomplete) transition from authoritarianism to (liberal) democracy. Yet, one can argue that outbursts of armed conflict in democratizing nations of Southeast Asia are actually not caused by political liberalization and democratization but are triggered by the same set of factors as democratization, that is, destabilization of the “iron-glade” authoritarian order, the failure of old nationalisms, and economic crisis. Obviously, managing the national identity problem is key to the political future of Myanmar. However, neither did this issue prevent Myanmar from completing its first transition nor did it constitute an insurmountable obstacle for democratization in Indonesia (or the Philippines). Furthermore, the escalation of ethnic conflicts does indicate legitimacy deficits of the nation-state and antipathy towards national myths and symbols; however, anti-Chinese pogroms and communal unrest in Indonesia in 1998-2000, ethnic cleansing and genocidal violence against Rohingya since 2016, and the deepening of armed unrest in Southern Thailand have also been a by-product of competition between branches of a state’s security apparatus for power and resources in the emerging regime.57 It could even be argued that democracy in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Timor Leste has done pretty well in peacefully managing the “national identity problem” (given the contexts).

Belligerent Democratizers?

From the 1950s to the 1980s, ideology was a primary engine of inter-state conflict in the region, but in the post-Cold War era, there has arisen a new nationalism in Southeast Asia, centering on issues of national pride, territorial integrity, and national sovereignty. The prime object of nationalist animosity is no longer one’s own government, but governments and elites in other countries, especially China (Malaysia, Vietnam) and the United States (Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand)58—indicative of rising tensions, amplified grievances, and worsening prospects for continued peace and prosperity in the wider region.59 As the rise of a new nationalism correlates with the wave of political liberalization and democratization that swept through Southeast Asia, some have asked if there is a relationship between democratization, nationalism, and foreign policy in Southeast Asia, although Tuong Vu sees democratization as a trigger (though, not a “deep cause”) for the rise of nationalism in the region.60

Cross-national survey data such as the World Value Survey (WVS) suggest that Southeast Asian publics in the early 21st century are indeed quite patriotic and share strong feelings of national pride. Figure 1 shows results from the Wave 5 and Wave 6 in the five Southeast Asian countries for which data are available. Large majorities in all cases derive a sense of dignity from their national identity: The mean of respondents expressing pride was 67.6% (“very proud”) and 27.5% (“quite proud”). The highest was in Vietnam (“very proud”: 80.3%, “quite proud”: 17.9), while the lowest was in Singapore (48.4/40.8) and Indonesia (45.7/45.9), still much higher than in East Asian countries.


The lack of time series data, however, makes it impossible to conclude that citizens have become more nationalist in recent years. And even though this paper does not seek to downplay the menace of “belligerent” democratization and foreign policy in the region, the evidence for the proposition that democratization caused the renewal of nationalisms and more belligerent foreign policies in Southeast Asia is weak. First, the new nationalist movements are not completely new in the sense that their discourse frequently seeks to appeal to traditional patriotism (Vietnam, Cambodia) as well as anti- colonialism and anti-western sentiments (the Philippines, Indonesia). As Tuong Vu notes, these themes were also “the hallmarks of the old nationalist movements of the early twentieth century.”61 And the shift from authoritarian to democratic regimes in some countries is one, but not the only important, change in the domestic, regional, and international contexts that shape foreign policy- making, e.g., the shift in the international and regional order, especially the economic, political, and military rise of China, which fuels anti-Chinese sentiments in Vietnam and Malaysia, or the US-led war on terrorism that kindled mass mobilization of Indonesian Muslims in solidarity with fellow Muslims viewed as being victims of the US and asserted the identity of Indonesians as a Muslim nation in opposition to Western domination.62 Modernization, globalization, and transnational migration are other relevant factors, that impact domestic and foreign policy across many countries in the region.

Second, it is not only the democratizing nations in the region that have seen “a post-Cold War surge of nationalism.” Vietnam has seen a notable rise of (anti-Chinese) nationalism in recent years, though the country does not belong to the democratizers in the region. Similarly, authoritarian governments in Thailand (since 2014), Cambodia, and Laos seek to legitimize their rule by intensifying nationalist sentiments and channeling popular anger and animosity into a form of pro-government nationalism.63 One can even argue that nationalism and nationalist foreign policies are more frequent in authoritarian regimes than in the democratization countries.

Third, liberalization and democratization undoubtedly created better opportunities for non-state actors to mobilize support for nationalist causes.64 However, the declining autonomy of the military and other vested interests also provides an opportunity for renegotiating national identities, interests, and foreign policy preferences. For example, Jörn Dosch argues that democratization had actually led to more liberal foreign policies in Southeast Asia and had a positive impact on regional cooperation, because it strengthened “regime accountability” and decreased “state autonomy from civil society and intermediate actors, such as parliaments, that try to exert influence over foreign relations.”65

Fourth, there is little empirical evidence which would support the proposition that democratizers in Southeast Asia have adopted more nationalist or belligerent foreign policies vis-à-vis their regional neighbors. The controversy between Cambodia and Thailand over a series of contested temple sites located along their border is, perhaps, the most prominent example for nationalist outbidding centered on a foreign policy agenda in Southeast Asia. Border tensions between the two nations were waning in the 1990s, after the end of the Cambodian civil war, but in the context of the parliamentary elections in Cambodia, anti-Thai riots broke out in Phnom Penh in early 2003. In 2008 the controversy suddenly gained prominence in Thailand primarily as a result of an extra- parliamentary opposition movement that was struggling to find an issue around which it could build a credible campaign against the elected government.66 Thus, the Thai-Cambodian conflict was clearly fueled by political competition and polarization between different social and political groups in both states competing with one another to advance their political influence at home.67 Case studies of foreign policy debates in the Indonesian parliament in the 2000s, suggest that legislators have sought to use their newly gained political clout to implement a neo-nationalist agenda that hamstrings the deepening of regional integration.68 Populists such as President Duterte in the Philippines instrumentalize nationalist sentiments and anti-Western rhetoric to mobilize political support for their controversial domestic policies. So far, however, this talk has not led to concrete foreign policy actions. Overall, however, it can be argued that for foreign-policy making in Southeast Asia, regime type matters less than who occupies the regime.69 As mentioned before, there has been strong elite continuity among Southeast Asian nations, especially at the level of bureaucratic, diplomatic, and economic elites. Shared preferences within and between “ruling coalitions” in democratic and less-than democratic countries sustained peace and economic cooperation among the states of ASEAN.70 Based on this reading, the fact that (incomplete) democratization did not lead to more belligerent foreign policies is explained by the fact that since the inception of ASEAN, a collective identity has been successfully constructed among the political elites of her member states through intense interaction and socialization.71


The experiences of Southeast Asian societies suggest that, in spite of difficult background conditions and serious challenges for the region’s democracies, most have been fairly successful in peacefully managing identity conflicts within the framework of newly established democratic institutions and procedures. Even though conclusions must be tentative, it seems fair to conclude that the implementation of democratic procedures and practices in Southeast Asia has helped to manage national identity problems. At the same time, the outcomes of democratization processes in terms of the levels and quality of democracy have also been affected by issues (or problems) of national identity. Of course, it is true that the existence of ethnic or cultural minorities who do not feel they belong to the national community pose a problem for the quality and stability of new democracies. Democratization, in fact, encouraged the political mobilization of ethnic and national identities among groups competing for power. At the same time, however, the opening of new liberal spaces in several Southeast Asian countries created a window of opportunity for the formation of new identity coalitions. Further, democratization involves the emergence of new visions of national community, which are articulated in various civil society sites and depict the nation less as a unified collectivity and more as an arena for the exercise of individual, majority, and minority rights and freedoms. Thus, the democratization process can also be understood as the restructuring of national identity away from the authoritarian and collectivist nationalist visions articulated by the previous state elites and toward more democratic and pluralist visions of the nation or, in other words, as the democratization of national identity.

Further, there is little empirical evidence to assume that the recent revival of nationalism in Southeast Asia (and the wider Asia-Pacific) is primarily a consequence of democratic regime change or that incomplete transitions to a consolidated democratic political regime have kindled a revival of belligerent foreign policy. Weak political institutions and problems of national identity alter the incentives and opportunities of political actors, who may evoke nationalist sentiments for political purposes. Yet, the region is much more stable and democratic now than it was just 30 years ago. In spite of the gloomy predictions and the potential conflicts looming across the region, regional relations have seen a host of improvements, even if Southeast Asia does have serious problems, some of which are linked to issues of national identity.

1. D. Rustow, “Transition to Democracy: toward a dynamic model,” Comparative Politics 2(3) (1970), pp. 337-63.

2. J.J. Linz and A. Stepan, Problems of democratic transition and consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and post-communist Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

3. J. Putzel, “Why has democratization been a weaker impulse in Indonesia and Malaysia than in the Philippines?” in D. Potter, D. Goldblatt, M. Kiloh, and P. Lewis, eds., Democratization (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997), pp. 240- 63.

4. D. Held, Models of Democracy, third edition (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006).

5. R.A. Dahl, Democracy and its critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

6. L. Diamond, Developing democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999); W. Merkel, “Embedded and defective democracies,” Democratization 11(5) (2004), pp. 33–58

7. W. Merkel, “Embedded and defective democracies”; and W. Merkel and A. Croissant, “Formal Institutions and Informal Rules in Defective Democracies,” Central European Political Science Review 1(2) (2000), pp. 31-48.

8. W. Merkel, “Embedded and defective democracies,” p. 36.

9. J. Nagata, “Elusive Democracy: Appropriation of ‘Rights’ Ideologies in Malaysian Ethnic and Religious Political Discourse,” in S.J. Henders, ed., Democratization and Identity: Regimes and Ethnicity in East and Southeast Asia (Oxford: Lexington Books, 2004), pp. 225-51.

10. G. O’Donnell, ““Transitions, Continuities, and Paradoxes” in S. Mainwaring, G. O’Donnell, and J. S. Valenzuela, eds., Issues in Democratic Consolidation: The New South American Democracies in Comparative Perspective (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), pp. 17-56.

11. T. Vu, “Southeast Asia’s New Nationalism: Causes and Significance,” Trans -Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia 1(2) (2013), pp, 259-79.

12. E. Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983); B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

13. A. Smith, Nations and Nationalism in a Global Era (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996).

14. T. Wencker, “Intrastate Conflict and Social Space in a Critical Realist Perspective. A Quantitative Analysis of the Formation of Non-State Actors and of Profiles of Violence in Asia and Oceania,” (Dissertation, Universität Heidelberg, 2018).

15. B. Anderson, Imagined Communities.

16. G. Rozman, “Introduction,” in G. Rozman, ed., East Asian National Identities. Common Roots and Chinese Exceptionalism (Washington DC and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson International Press, and Stanford University Press, 2012), pp. 1-15.

17. C. Offe, “Capitalism by democratic design? Democratic theory facing the triple transition in East Central Europe,” Social Research 58 (1991), pp. 865-92.

18. D. Rustow, “Transition to Democracy.”

19. Rustow used the term rather loosely to refer to at least five characteristics: 1) national unity, 2) national identity, 3) boundaries must endure, 4) composition of the citizenship must be continuous, and 5) democratization cannot commence until someone decides who the people are. He B.-g., “The National Identity Problem and Democratization: Rustow’s theory of sequence,” Government and Opposition 36(1) (2001), p. 99.

20. D. Rustow, “Transition to Democracy,” p. 350.

21. John Stuart Mill already wrote in the mid-19th century that democracy is “next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist.” Representative Government. In Three Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 382.

22. J.J. Linz and A. Stepan, Problems of democratic transition and consolidation, pp. 25-26, 36.

23. E.D. Mansfield and J. Snyder, “Incomplete Democratization and the Outbreak of Military Disputes,” International Studies Quarterly 46(4) (2002), pp. 529-49.

24. E.D. Mansfield, and J. Snyder, “Pathways to War in Democratic Transitions,” International Organization 63(2) (2009), pp. 381-90.

25. V. Narang, and R.M. Nelson, “Who Are These Belligerent Democratizers? Reassessing the Impact of Democratization on War,” International Organization 63(2) (2009), p. 357.

26. I.H. Cho, “Democratic Instability: Democratic Consolidation, National Identity, and Security Dynamics in East Asia,” Foreign Policy Analysis, No. 8, 2012, pp. 191–213.

27. J. Lind, “Democratization and Stability in East Asia,” International Studies Quarterly 55(2) (2011), pp. 409-36.

28. D. Brown, “Contending Nationalism in Southeast Asia,” Asia Research Center Working Paper 117, Murdoch University, 2005, p. 2.

29. T. Vu, “Southeast Asia’s New Nationalism.”

30. P. Kratoska and B. Batson, “Nationalism and modernist reform,” in N. Tarling, ed., Cambridge history of Southeast Asia: Vol. II, Part 1: From c. 1800 to the 1930s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 253-320.

31. D. Brown, The Democratization of National Identity,” in S. J. Henders, ed., Democratization and Identity, pp. 43-66.

32. Ibid.

33. The ethnic composition of Malaysia comprises two major constitutional groups and three “races,” namely Bumiputera (literally “prince of the soil”) and non-Bumiputera (ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians). The Bumiputera category consists of Malays and the non-Malay indigenous peoples of Borneo and Peninsula Malaysia. The special rights of the Bumiputera are established in the Malaysian Constitution. A. Croissant and P. Lorenz, Comparative Politics of Southeast Asia. An Introduction into Government and Politics (Cham: Springer, 2018).

34. I.-w. Hwang, Personalized Politics: The Malaysian State under Mahathir (Singapore: ISEAS, 2003), p. 246.

35. S. Thananithichot, “Understanding Thai Nationalism and Ethnic Identity,” Journal of Asian and African Studies 46(3) (2011), pp. 260-61.

36. D. Brown, “Contending Nationalism in Southeast Asia,” p. 10; P. Chachavalpongpun, “Thailand’s eternal flame of nationalism. Legitimacy and manipulation,” in J. Kingston, ed., Asian Nationalisms Reconsidered (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), pp. 207-17.

37. R.W. Hefner, “Introduction: Multiculturalism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia,” in R.W. Hefner, ed., The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001), pp. 1-58.

38.   B.H. Chua, Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore (London: Routledge, 1995).

39. M. Leach, Nation-Building and National Identity in Timor-Leste (Abingdon: Oxon, Routledge, 2017).

40. A. Croissant, “From Transition to Defective Democracy. Mapping Asian Democratization,” Democratization 11(5) (2004), pp. 156-79.

41. D.C. Shin and R.S. Tusalem. “East Asia,” in C.W. Haerpfer, P. Bernhagen, R.F. Inglehart, and C. Welzel, eds., Democratization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 356–76.

42. Bertelsmann Stiftung BTI, Codebook for Country Assessments (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2018).

43. D.C. Shin and R.S. Tusalem. “East Asia”; A. Croissant and M. Bünte, eds., The Crisis of Democratic Governance in Southeast Asia (Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave, 2011).

44. D. Rustow, “Transition to Democracy.”

45. BTI 2018, p. 16.

46. J. Melchnik, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance without Liberalism. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

47. P. Ziegenhain, “Islam and Nation-Building in Indonesia and Malaysia,” ASIEN 146 (2018), pp. 78-95.

48. Ibid. cites a survey from the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, which finds that 43 percent of Malays wish for a more Islamic country and only 38 percent shared the view that all religious groups should be given equal rights.

49. J. Henick, Nation Building in Timor-Leste: National Identity Contests and Crisis (Dissertation, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 2014); M. Leach, Nation-Building and National Identity in Timor-Leste.

50. P.N. Abinales and D.J. Amoroso, State and society in the Philippines (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).

51. C.G. Hernandez, “The Philippines in 2015: A house still not in order?” Asian Survey, 56 (1) (2016), pp. 115– 22.

52. A. Croissant, Civil-Military Relations in Southeast Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

53. International Crisis Group, “The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis,” Report No. 296, ICG, 2018.

54. P. Millar, “Race to the bottom: how Cambodia’s opposition is targeting ethnic Vietnamese,” Southeast Asia Globe, October 21, 2016 (

55. A. Croissant, “Unrest in South Thailand: Contours, Causes, and Consequences Since 2001”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 27(1) (2005), pp. 21-44.

56. International Crisis Group, “Jihadism in Southern Thailand: A Phantom Menace,” Report No. 291, ICG, 2017.

57. J. Gledhill, “Competing for Change: Regime Transition, Intrastate Competition, and Violence,” Security Studies 21(1) (2012), pp. 43-82.

58. T. Vu, “Southeast Asia’s New Nationalism,” p. 266.

59. J. Kingston, “Introduction,” in J. Kingston, ed., Asian Nationalisms Reconsidered, p. 1.

60. T. Vu, “Southeast Asia’s New Nationalism.”

61. Ibid., p. 266.

62. Ibid., p. 263.

63. Chachavalpongpun 2016? N.T. Bui, “Managing anti-China nationalism in Vietnam: evidence from the media during the 2014 oil rig crisis,” The Pacific Review 30(2) (2017), pp. 169-87; P.M. Rattanasengchanh, “The Role of Preah Vihear in Hun Sen’s Nationalism Politics, 2008– 2013,” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 36(3) (2017), pp. 63–89; S. Creak and K. Barney, “Conceptualising Party-State Governance and Rule in Laos,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, 2018, DOI: 10.1080/00472336.2018.1494849.

64. T. Vu, “Southeast Asia’s New Nationalism,” p. 273.

65. J. Dosch, “The Impact of Democratization on the Making of Foreign Policy in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines,” Südostasien aktuell, No. 5, 2006, p. 48.

66. A. Croissant and P.W. Chambers, “A Contested Site of Memory: The Preah Vihear Temple,” in H. Anheier and R.Y. Isar, eds., Cultures and Globalization 4: Heritage, Memory, Identity (Los Angeles: Sage Publication, 2011).

67. S.U. Deth, “Factional politics and foreign policy choices in Cambodia-Thailand diplomatic relations,” (Dissertation Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, 2014,

68. J. Rüland, “Deepening ASEAN cooperation through democratization? The Indonesian legislature and foreign policymaking,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 9(3) (2009), pp. 373–402; J. Rüland, “Democratizing Foreign-Policy Making in Indonesia and the Democratization of ASEAN: A Role Theory Analysis,” TRaNS: Trans –Regional and –National Studies of Southeast Asia 5(1) (2017), pp. 49–73.

69. E.,Solingen, “Southeast Asia in a New Era: Domestic Coalitions from Crisis to Recovery,” Asian Survey 44:2 (2004), pp. 189-212; E. Solingen, Regional Orders at Century’s Dawn: Global and Domestic Influences on Grand Strategy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).

70. L. Jones, “Democratisation and Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia: The Case of the ASEAN Inter- Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 22(3) (2009).

71. A. Acharya, Regionalism and Multilateralism: Essays on Cooperative Security in the Asia Pacific (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 2002).