Mapping Global Populism — Panel #8: The State of Populist Authoritarianism in Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar)

Selective focus on traditional conical hat of person walking against traffic motorbikes on busy street in Old Quarter in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Jaromir Chalabala.

Date/Time: Thursday, December 14, 2023 — 10:00-12:00 (CET)


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(Lecturer at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, Erasmus University Rotterdam).


“Accountability in a High-Performing Authoritarian Regime: The Case of Vietnam,” by Dr. Nguyen Khac Giang  (Visiting Fellow at the Vietnam Studies Programme, Yusof Ishak Institute – ISEAS).

Political Culture, Social Media, and Authoritarian Populism in Cambodia," by Dr. Sokphea Young (Visiting Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London).

“Reflecting on 48 Years of Socialism in the Lao PDR: What Does This Mean, and What Comes Next?” by Dr. Phill Wilcox (Research Associate at Bielefeld University). 

Is Myanmar a Totalitarian State?” by Dr. Mon Mon Myat (Instructor at the Peace Studies Department in Payap University, Thailand). 


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Brief Biographies and Abstracts

Dr. Nguyễn Yến-Khanh is currently a faculty member at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research interests encompass health communication, social media marketing and sustainable consumer behavior, with the ultimate goal to drive positive social change. Her research put an emphasis on public policy, corporate social responsibility, diversity/inclusivity issues as well as society and consumer well-being. With 13 years of experience as a journalist, public relations specialist, marketing manager and marketing director for local and global companies, and 10 years in the academia, Khanh focuses her teaching and research on their relevance and impact as agents of change in real life and real work. She aims to develop graduates who are ready and passionate to go out there and change the world, in small or big ways.

Accountability in a High-Performing Authoritarian Regime: The Case of Vietnam

Dr. Nguyen Khac Giang is a Visiting Fellow at the Vietnam Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He was formerly Head of the Political Research Unit of the Hanoi-based Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research (VEPR). His academic work appears in, among others, the Asian Journal of Political Science, Contemporary Southeast Asia, the Constitutional Political Economy, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies and the Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and is an oft-quoted expert on Vietnamese affairs, having written extensively for major Vietnamese and English news outlets.

Abstract: Vietnam has consistently been among the top-performing nations economically over the last four decades, evolving from a war-torn, centrally planned system into a vibrant society deeply integrated into international markets. Despite this economic metamorphosis, the political landscape remains unchanged, as Vietnam continues to be a one-party state under the exclusive control of the Communist Party of Vietnam. This situation poses a classic dilemma: how does an autocratic regime deal with a rising middle class increasingly less willing to compromise on civil liberties for material gains? At this juncture, I argue that autocrats have two paths. First, they can concentrate on building administrative strength and increasing control capacity, while avoiding pluralizing the political environment. Conversely, autocrats might choose to be responsive to popular demand, holding back control capacity, and allowing limited space for pluralization and thus maintaining a relatively high level of accountability. The latter’s arrangement, which I call a high-accountability equilibrium, is Vietnam’s resilience strategy. This presentation will describe this strategy, whether it is sustainable, and its implication for Vietnam’s prospect of democratization.  

Political Culture, Social Media, and Authoritarian Populism in Cambodia

Dr. Sokphea Young is a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of “Strategies of authoritarian survival and dissensus in Southeast Asia: Weak Men versus Strongmen” with Palgrave Macmillan (2021). He is working on his second book entitled “Visual Spectacle: Visual social media, citizenship, and political emancipation in Cambodia.”

Abstract: Media, social media, in particular, is perceived to have mediated the democratization process in authoritarian countries. Given its ability to spread news and image news faster than traditional media, social media played a vital role in regime change in the Middle East. Such a notion was also believed to be an exemplar of Cambodia in 2013 when the opposition party gained ever-anticipated electoral support from most youth who subscribed to social media. The ruling regime then, on the one hand, suppressed the use of social media and exploited the latter to stimulate its anti-pluralism ideology, adopting an authoritarian populist style of leadership on the other. The success of this populist approach is bestowed by the entrenched culture of believing in the ruler’s spiritual prowess to rule and lead the country. Social media‘s availability as a modern communication tool has strengthened the ruler’s cultural and religious propaganda among the population and social media users. 

By examining social media as a platform of political participation, surveillance, and political culture, this paper illustrates how social media has transformed into a double-edged sword in the era of surveillance capitalism. While it remains a valuable tool to advocate against the authorities in the early period, it is a useful rhetorical weapon for the authorities to propagate their authoritarian populism. The paper argues that, although social media is the Western notion of democracy, given its ability to democratize information and news, it loses control to authoritarian populists in the age of surveillance capitalism. The authoritarian regime expropriates Western democracy devices to circumvent political pluralism and to fuel the culture of believing in strongmen.

Reflecting on 48 Years of Socialism in the Lao PDR: What Does This Mean, and What Comes Next?

Dr. Phill Wilcox is a Research Associate at Bielefeld University. She completed her Ph.D. in 2018 and has since published a monograph entitled “Heritage and the Making of Political Legitimacy: The Past and Present of the Lao Nation.” Dr. Wilcox is currently writing a second book about how rising levels of Chinese influence in Laos are perceived and negotiated by the Lao population.

Abstract: Laos has been a one-party socialist state since the deposition of its monarchy and the formal establishment of the country as a People’s Democratic Republic in 1975. In contrast to many other countries, one-party socialism did not fall around the time of the dissolution of the USSR and the contemporary state of Laos is soon to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. This does mean though that the system has not seen significant change throughout the last five decades, including a retrenchment of authoritarianism in recent years. This presentation gives an overview of where Laos is in place, what keeps the authoritarian system in place and how this connects with local notions of political legitimacy, as well as some insights as to the challenges Laos faces in the future.

Is Myanmar a Totalitarian State?

Dr. Mon Mon Myat works as a full-time instructor at the Peace Studies Department in Payap University, Thailand. She has published articles in academic journals and university websites various works arising from her Ph.D. research. And she has contributed book chapters in three books.

Abstract: In the eyes of the world, Myanmar is a nation where a perpetual internal conflict between pro-democracy and pro-military forces has existed for decades. The coup of February 2021 is merely the latest iteration of a generations-long conflict.  This is a tragically accurate impression. What is more difficult to grasp is the lack of condemnation and outrage from the international community at this enduring civil war. While the world focuses on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it turns a blind eye to the terror tactics of the powerful Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces.  Like the Russian Army, the Tatmadaw conducts air strikes against civilians, including school children and women.  It drives indigenous peoples from their villages.  Its tactics include massacres, murder, torture, and summary arrests, engaging in what holocaust survivor and political philosopher Hannah Arendt defined as the sine qua non of totalitarian states: “dominating and terrorizing human beings from within” (325).[1] This study set out to answer whether Myanmar under the current military regime meets Arendt’s definition of a totalitarian state from her first book, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

[1] Arendt, Hannah.  The Origins of Totalitarianism: New Edition With Added Prefaces,  New York:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.  The Origins of Totalitarianism is widely considered Arendt’s magnum opus.  It was written in the immediate aftermath of the second world war, and was first published in 1951.   It has subsequently been re-issued in many editions with additional prefaces.  In this chapter, all page references are exclusively to this 1973 edition.

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