Table of Contents

In Southeast Asia, the coronavirus pandemic presents both challenges for civic engagement and opportunities for positive change. On one hand, the pandemic has provided a pretext for autocrats to tighten their grip on power, deepening existing regional trends in autocratization and shrinking civic space. On the other hand, civil society organizations (CSOs) have emerged to focus on economic and social welfare needs, and their activism may challenge autocrats in the long run.

Although some regimes have been effective in addressing the health emergency and nascent economic setbacks, others have performed poorly and faced growing domestic criticism. Southeast Asian civil society will need to leverage the weaknesses of autocratic governance that the pandemic has revealed by creating broad-based alliances, challenging autocratic narratives, and proposing democratic visions for post-pandemic societies.

Five trends are emerging in Southeast Asia as a result of the pandemic and are pushing in very different political directions: tougher government restrictions on CSOs, contentious civil society action, new mutual aid initiatives, organized relief efforts, and repurposed advocacy groups.

Tougher Government Restrictions

The spread of the coronavirus is potentially accelerating autocratization in the region as leaders in many countries have used the pandemic as a pretext to increase their power.1 All major Southeast Asian governments except Indonesia’s have imposed emergency decrees, curfews, or similar laws in light of the pandemic.2 This has helped consolidate effective government responses to the pandemic in countries such as Singapore and Vietnam, but such laws have also been used to crack down on government critics and undermine opposition parties, furthering authoritarian power grabs.

Jasmin Lorch
Jasmin Lorch is a research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA).

A worrying case occurred in the Philippines, where Congress, dominated by President Rodrigo Duterte’s loyalists, granted the president emergency powers under an act that also contained a provision penalizing fake news. This was widely seen as an instrument to go after opponents, and indeed, the National Bureau of Investigation pressed charges against online critics of the government’s crisis management.3 Similarly, in the middle of the pandemic, Congress passed a new antiterrorism law, which defines terrorism in such broad terms as to allow the government to classify political criticism as terrorism.4 In September 2020, Duterte extended the national “state of calamity” by a year.5

Things are not looking brighter in Thailand or Myanmar. The Thai military-backed government’s March 2020 emergency decree remains in place even though the threat of the coronavirus has been contained in the country.6 Along with other draconian laws, the decree has been used to charge anti-government protesters as young as sixteen years old and circumvent parliamentary checks on executive power.7 The decree has also limited the public backlash against allegations of the government’s involvement in human rights violations, including the forced disappearance of an exiled activist who was critical of the government.8

Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has refrained from invoking a nationwide emergency but has arrested large numbers of people for disobedience. Journalists have likewise been prosecuted for alleged violations of pandemic-related regulations, and a group of street artists was charged with offending religion in their artwork about the coronavirus. Meanwhile, restrictions on meetings between CSOs and parliamentarians on grounds of health protection have further limited CSO advocacy for fundamental rights, reinforcing a trend that existed before the pandemic.9 After a spike in coronavirus infections, the Myanmar government imposed partial lockdowns in Rakhine state and the country’s largest city, Yangon, in late August and early September 2020, respectively. Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi warned that disrespecting coronavirus regulations would be punished with up to a year’s imprisonment.10

Apart from emergency laws, existing media and cyber laws in most Southeast Asian countries have proved useful in silencing civic and democratic criticisms of governments’ pandemic responses. For instance, Indonesia’s 2008 law on electronic information and transactions was used against an independent researcher who was critical of the coronavirus measures taken by the government of President Joko Widodo.11

In Vietnam between January and March 2020, police responded to 654 cases of so-called fake news, sanctioning 146 people including a dissident publisher.12 In Singapore, the 2019 Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act has been used to target not only spreaders of fake news about the pandemic but also journalists and political rivals of the ruling People’s Action Party government. Eighty-five percent of all online posts defined as false under the law consisted of negative portrayals of the government’s activities or policies.13

In Malaysia, citizens have been arrested for what the government has branded fake news about the pandemic.14 For instance, through the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act, the Malaysian police summoned a journalist who was questioning the government’s treatment of migrant workers amid the pandemic.15

The Cambodian regime tightened its grip on power by declaring a state of emergency in March 2020. Activists were detained on charges of spreading false information about the coronavirus, and the country’s prime minister directly threatened with arrest the leader of a local human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) who had commented on the government’s crisis response.16 The allegation of spreading fake news also led to the arrests of key members of the opposition, a practice all too common since the Cambodian Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party before the 2018 general election.17

Contentious Civil Society Action

The second trend contrasts with the first, as contentious civic activism has occurred despite and, at times, against draconian government restrictions. This activism has been driven mostly by economic and social welfare needs in conjunction with ensuing grievances against regimes. Most Southeast Asian countries rely on tourism and export industries. Without substantive compensation for workers, governments’ lockdown measures have aggravated the lot of the unemployed, who have sometimes responded by staging spontaneous protests. Regimes’ unsympathetic responses have stirred public anger.

Janjira Sombatpoonsiri
Janjira Sombatpoonsiri is a researcher at the Institute of Asian Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and an associate at GIGA. She is also a member of the Carnegie Civic Research Network.

For instance, in the Philippines, a small group of urban poor people affected by the Duterte government’s harsh lockdown protested in Manila to demand livelihood support. They were soon arrested, with Duterte calling on law enforcers to “shoot them dead” if they caused any “trouble.”18 CSOs such as the leftist Solidarity of Filipino Workers were quick to condemn the arrests.19 Meanwhile, rights groups and ordinary citizens tweeted their criticism with hashtags such as #DuterteResign and #OustDuterteNOW.20

In Myanmar, factory workers staged small-scale protests against the government’s pandemic-related measures, resulting in the legal prosecution of some workers.21 In May 2020, over thirty Cambodian and international NGOs issued a joint statement urging the Cambodian government to allow around 150 Cambodian migrant workers stranded in Malaysia to re-enter their home country.22 With growing job losses and layoffs, independent labor unions in Cambodia, Myanmar, and the Philippines have called on their respective governments to provide urgent compensation for workers.23

In Thailand, growing economic concerns due to lockdown measures have taken a new turn. Since mid-July 2020, young people, whose job prospects have dimmed and whose grievances over the country’s autocratization are deepening, have been leading nationwide protests against the regime. Students were already on the streets in February and early March 2020 after Thailand’s constitutional court disbanded a progressive party. Defiance against the regime diminished with the advent of the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown but then resurfaced even more strongly. As of this writing, students—together with LGBTQ groups, labor movements, and development NGOs—have organized more than 200 protests across the country. One major event on September 19, 2020, gathered between 50,000 and 100,000 people—the biggest protest since Thailand’s 2014 military coup.24 In what has become one of the world’s most prominent revolts, protesters are demanding the prime minister’s resignation and democratic reform of the constitution and the monarchy. Corresponding to these three demands is a three-finger salute that protesters have taken from the movie series The Hunger Games as an anti-dictatorship symbol.25

Another type of contentious civil society action has countered problematic government narratives about the coronavirus and related government relief efforts. In several Southeast Asian countries, civil society activists and journalists have actively disputed government misinformation about the pandemic, for instance through online campaigns. In the Philippines, civil society activists have worked with the nonprofit media organization Vera Files in a fact-checking community on Facebook whose existence predates the pandemic. In Malaysia, civil society activists and media outlets such as the online magazine Malaysiakini have sought to hold the government accountable during the crisis and lobbied against government attempts to curtail online expression.26

New Mutual Aid Initiatives

New volunteer groups have emerged to provide humanitarian relief and welfare services in place of governments. These groups are not necessarily run by seasoned activists but often by local residents who have organized to cope with the health crisis, subsequent economic setbacks, and coronavirus-related lockdown measures.

A striking example is the citizen-organized task force of the village of Gumuk Indah in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where the government’s responses to the pandemic have been slow and uncoordinated.27 The task force has provided health responses, including health education and hygiene measures, to prevent transmission of the virus; supported people affected by the lockdown with aid kits; and sought to counter the security impacts of the pandemic and associated lockdown measures. The task force has drawn on volunteers, some of whom were previously active in neighborhood associations and local community-building organizations. The example of Gumuk Indah has sparked discussions in the international humanitarian community of ways to include people-centered approaches in humanitarian programs better and, possibly, move from community engagement to community-led engagement.28

While in March 2020 the Indonesian authorities still downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic, professional groups were quick to respond. Tech start-ups launched crowdfunding campaigns to raise funds for informal-sector workers and buy personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. By late March, around 15,000 medical students from 158 universities across Indonesia had volunteered in understaffed hospitals.29 The Women’s Police in West Java donated their already low salaries to buy food for affected residents.30

In Myanmar, CSOs, religious organizations, and local companies have provided food and other emergency supplies for the needy, filling gaps left by the state. In addition, Buddhist monks, religious leaders of the Muslim minority, and Christian churches have allowed their religious compounds to be used as quarantine centers.31 Similarly, in the Philippines, citizens have come together to make PPE for frontline health professionals, distributed food packs for the homeless, and made cash transfers to the unemployed.32 In Cambodia, diverse actors, including CSOs and business tycoons, have made donations to support the government’s efforts to counter the coronavirus.33

Organized CSO Relief Efforts

Organized CSOs have played critical roles in helping vulnerable communities. In Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, charity groups were set up to raise funds to buy medical supplies and food for slum dwellers, disabled people, and migrant workers.34 Although these charities are not by nature advocacy organizations, some have urged the government to adopt more comprehensive social policies that aid economically and socially vulnerable people in times of crisis.35

In Malaysia, NGO relief efforts kick-started a renegotiation of NGO-government relations in the field of care for vulnerable migrant and refugee communities. The Movement Control Order, issued by the government to counter the spread of the coronavirus, initially barred NGO access to migrant and refugee populations, with the military and a paramilitary corps distributing all pandemic-related aid to these communities.36 But after NGOs launched a campaign called Let Us Work With You, the government adjusted the order to allow NGOs to distribute food and other emergency supplies to affected communities.37 Subsequent cooperation has improved relations between the government and some NGOs.38 Still, a recent study also shows that Malaysian CSOs that help vulnerable communities themselves face serious challenges in light of the pandemic, including financial shortages and the disruption of staff development due to economic uncertainties.39

In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has for a long time been reluctant to cooperate with civil society and so far failed to provide adequate support for CSOs that work to counter the coronavirus pandemic.40 Yet, the country’s CSOs play important roles in mitigating the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus and have engaged in critical advocacy to influence the government’s response to the health crisis.

For instance, the Livelihoods and Food Security Fund, a multidonor fund managed by the United Nations Office for Project Services, estimates that over 80 percent of its coronavirus response activities are conducted by its local partners, with local CSOs engaging in relief efforts as different as welfare and health service delivery, education, awareness training, and the provision of legal assistance to migrant workers.41 In May 2020, over 200 CSOs from diverse professional and ethnic backgrounds issued a joint statement in which they urged Myanmar’s government to provide food and financial support for people in need; advocated respect for human rights, democracy, and social justice in the government’s crisis response; and demanded an end to armed conflict in ethnic areas.42

Repurposed Advocacy Groups for Welfare Delivery

Finally, advocacy groups that repurpose their agendas for social and economic welfare activities have been able to leverage the health crisis to carve out a new civic space, counter regimes’ narratives, and generate progressive social visions for the post-coronavirus context. In Thailand, student activists who launched anti-junta campaigns before the pandemic have partly shifted to humanitarian work by distributing food packs to the unemployed, slum dwellers, and affected sex workers.43 Meanwhile in Myanmar, some ethnic minority activists have reoriented themselves from human rights campaigns to health advocacy and service provision, including by distributing food and other basic goods in remote areas.44

Challenging Duterte’s militaristic framing of the fight against the pandemic, Filipino human rights groups such as Active Vista have refocused their activities to link human rights with equal access to public health. These groups hope to reshape human rights discourses in terms of “people working together out of generosity to achieve a common goal” and “a shared sense of identity and treating others with respect and dignity as [equals].”45

A similar trend has occurred in Singapore, where xenophobic rhetoric against migrant workers has surged in light of the country’s second coronavirus wave. An outspoken LGBTQ movement, Pink Dot, has extended its support to migrant workers by raising funds for, and delivering care packages to, many of those who were trapped in dormitories because of coronavirus restrictions. Based on the informal modes of activism the movement has developed, Pink Dot has organized online activities such as livestreamed performances and interactive discussions. On June 27, 2020, the movement invited supporters to light up their homes and workplaces in pink and share pictures of small gatherings with close ones. These activities sent a message of solidarity between Singaporeans and migrant workers, countered xenophobic attitudes toward migrants, and, most importantly, ignited conversations about social justice in post-pandemic Singapore.46

Harnessing Opportunities

It is clear that the coronavirus pandemic is reinforcing an existing trend of autocratization in Southeast Asia and that this trend will persist in the short to medium term. This will have detrimental effects on contentious antiregime activism, although it remains to be seen whether Thailand’s high-profile, ongoing protests will yield substantive outcomes in the coming months. All Southeast Asian regimes have imposed severe legal or de facto restrictions on civil liberties, preventing the development of strong, civil society–based opposition movements. However, increasing social engagement in the context of the health crisis seems to be enlarging civic space in the area of social service provision. This engagement may have the potential to strengthen links between national and international civil society as well as between formally organized CSOs and informal, community-based groups in individual Southeast Asian countries.

This new dynamic of civic activism in the welfare sector does little to alter the autocratizing trend in the region. However, improved relations between organized CSOs and local communities may, in the long term, contribute to creating a more legitimate and organic civil society in many Southeast Asian countries. Thus, new and reorienting civic groups with socioeconomic welfare agendas may slowly gather the political force necessary to resist autocratization.

For this to happen, politically contentious civic groups will need to form alliances with welfare-based groups that are gaining traction among local communities. Human rights and pro-democracy advocacy organizations will need to connect their political agendas with issues of citizens’ welfare, including healthcare and economic redistribution. Civic coalitions must counter regime narratives that depict authoritarian leadership as a success factor for an effective crisis response. In Singapore and Vietnam, where governments have responded swiftly and effectively to the pandemic, such narratives are difficult to crack. However, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand, where governments have often failed to meet citizens’ expectations, CSOs may well be able to challenge regime narratives about authoritarian effectiveness. And finally, the pandemic should push Southeast Asian civil society to develop more appealing visions of democracy that leave no one behind in the post-pandemic world.


1 Autocratization has been defined as a “substantial de-facto decline of core institutional requirements for electoral democracy” that can take place in both democratic and nondemocratic regimes. Anna Lührmann and Staffan Lindberg, “A Third Wave of Autocratization Is Here: What Is New About It?,” Democratization 26, no. 7 (2019): 1096, 1099.

2 James Gomez and Robin Ramcharan, “Coronavirus and Democracy in Southeast Asia,” Bangkok Post, April 1, 2020, For a comprehensive list of laws implemented in Southeast Asia in light of the pandemic, see “COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker,” International Center for Not-for-Profit Law,

3 Jason Castaneda, “Why Duterte Wants to Extend His COVID-19 Emergency,” Asia Times, June 9, 2020,; Mariejo S. Ramos, “Rights Groups Wary as NBI Summons 17 for ‘Fake News,’” Inquirer, April 4, 2020,

4 Nick Aspinwall, “The Philippines’ Broad Anti-Terrorism Law Takes Aim at Dissent,” Diplomat, June 5, 2020,

5 Pia Ranada, “Duterte Extends State of Calamity Due to Coronavirus Until September 2021,” Rappler, September 18, 2020,

6 “State of Emergency Extended Until End of July,” Nation, June 29, 2020,

7 Sunai Phasuk, “Thai Activist Arrested on COVID-19 Pretext,” Human Rights Watch, May 15, 2020,; “Chiang Rai Students Summoned for Violating Emergency Decree,” Post Today, July 21, 2020,; Shawn W. Crispin, “COVID-19 Gives Prayut New Political Life in Thailand,” Asia Times, July 3, 2020,

8 George Wright and Issariya Praithongyaem, “Wanchalearm Satsaksit: The Thai Satirist Abducted in Broad Daylight,” BBC, July 2, 2020,

9 RSF Hub, “Covid-19 in Myanmar: Effects of the Pandemic on the Rule of Law,” Rule of Law Promotion in Times of Covid-19, no. 4, June 2020,

10 Zaw Zaw Htwe, “Myanmar’s COVID-19 Cases Exceed 1,000,” Irrawaddy, September 3, 2020,

11 Ary Hermawan, “The Curious Case of Ravio Patra: Why Indonesian Cyberspace Is a Dystopian Nightmare,” Jakarta Post, April 24, 2020,

12 David Hutt, “Some Thoughts on Vietnam’s COVID-19 Repression,” Asia Times, May 22, 2020,

13 Paul Meyer, “Singapore’s First Election Under the Fake News Law,” Diplomat, July 7, 2020,

14 Felix Bethke and Jonas Wolff, “COVID-19 as a Threat to Civic Spaces Around the World,” PRIF Blog, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, April 1, 2020,

15 Hadi Azmi, “Malaysian Police Question Reporter Over Tweets About Migrant Roundup,” Benar News, May 6, 2020,

16 “Cambodia: Rights Groups Concern Over Arrests & Harassment of Activists During the Covid-19 Pandemic,” Business & Human Rights Resource Center, April 3, 2020,

17 “Cambodia: COVID-19 Clampdown on Free Speech,” Human Rights Watch, March 24, 2020,

18 Sofia Tomacruz, “‘Shoot Them Dead’: Duterte Orders Troops to Kill Quarantine Violators,” Rappler, April 1, 2020,

19 Rambo Talabong, “Quezon City Residents Demanding Help Amid Lockdown Arrested by Police,” Rappler, April 1, 2020,

20 Lynzy Billing, “Duterte’s Response to the Coronavirus: ‘Shoot Them Dead,’” Foreign Policy, April 16, 2020,

21 RSF Hub, “Covid-19 in Myanmar.”

22 “Joint Statement on Repatriation of Cambodia Nationals to Cambodia,” Human Rights Watch, May 29, 2020,

23 “South East Asian Unions Turn Online to Defend Workers’ Rights,” IndustriALL Global Union, May 12, 2020,

24 “19 September Demonstrations,” BBC, September 20, 2020,

25 Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, “Thailand’s Anti-Establishment Protests,” International Politics and Society, August 31, 2020,

26 “Stronger Alliance of Civil Society and Media in Asia Called to Fight Infodemic,” Digital Thinkers Forum/CoFact Thailand, April 16, 2020,

27 Sana Jaffrey, “Coronavirus Blunders in Indonesia Turn Crisis Into Catastrophe,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 29, 2020,

28 “Fighting COVID-19 in Indonesia / Melawan COVID-19 di Indonesia,” Sphere webinar, June 25, 2020, recording available at

29 Ghina Ghaliya, “Medical Students Ready to Join Fight Against COVID-19,” Jakarta Post, March 27, 2020,

30 Renne R. A. Kawilarang and Zahrul Darmawan, “Polwan di Depok Sumbang Gaji Bantu Warga Miskin,” Vivanews, April 24, 2020,

31 Kyi Kiy Sein, “The Coronavirus Challenges Myanmar’s Transition,” United States Institute for Peace, March 26, 2020,

32 Filomin Gutierrez, “Solidarity and Sharing in an Unequal Society: COVID-19 in the Philippines,” openDemocracy, May 2, 2020,

33 Kimkong Heng and Len Ang, “Who’s Helping Cambodia Weather COVID-19?,” Diplomat, July 8, 2020,

34 Kornkamol Sriwiwat, “X-Ray Thailand: On the Day We Say We Would Leave No One Behind,” 101, May 20, 2020,; “COVID-19: Impact on Migrant Workers and Country Response in Malaysia,” International Labor Organization, May 8, 2020, groups/public/---asia/---ro-bangkok/documents/briefingnote/wcms_741512.pdf; Tania Nguyen, “Realising Rice and Rights: The Role of Civil Society in Realising the Right to Food in Vietnam During the COVID-19,” SHAPESEA, April 17, 2020,

35 “Civil Society Suggest State Aid for Everyone,” Thai News Agency, June 4, 2020,

36 R. Loheswar, “Send Food for Homeless to District Collection Centres, RELA and Army Will Disburse, Defence Minister Tells NGOs,” Mail Malaysia, March 28, 2020,; Natalie Shobana Ambrose, “Malaysia’s Marginalized and COVID-19,” Asia Foundation, May 13, 2020,

37 Grace Chen, “JKM’s New Guidelines Allow NGOs to Distribute Food to Needy Folk,” Star, April 2, 2020,

38 Ambrose, “Malaysia’s Marginalized.”

39 “Survey Report: Impact of COVID-19 on Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in Malaysia,” Yayasan Hasanah Foundation, 2020,

40 Authors’ email and phone conversations with experts, July 2020.

41 Thu Thu Nwe Hlaing, “No COVID-19 Response Is Possible Without Civil Society Involvement,” Livelihoods and Food Security Fund, June 16, 2020,

42 “Myanmar Civil Society Organizations and Networks Urge the Myanmar Government and Other Relevant Stakeholders to Take Urgent Measures During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Transnational Institute, May 28, 2020,

43 Duanpen Chuipracha, “Netiwit and #SongTorKwamImm: Sharing Campaigns for Mutual Survival,” A Day, May 20, 2020,

44 Maggi Quadrini, “Civil Society Grapples With COVID-19 Impact in Myanmar’s Ethnic Areas,” Myanmar Mix, May 4, 2020,

45 James Savage, “How Civil Society Is Fighting Back Against Coronavirus Crackdowns,” OpenDemocracy, June 24, 2020,

46 Lynn Ng Yu Ling, “What Does the COVID-19 Pandemic Mean for PinkDot Singapore?,” Interface 12, no. 1 (2020): 72–81,