SEAI Exclusive: How to Prevent Southeast Asia from Development in Reverse

Associate Professor Pichamon YEOPHANTONG, Deakin University
Photo courtesy: Kyle Leyden

The geopolitical challenges that we see unfolding in Southeast Asia are not limited just to the domain of great power or strategic competition. From supply chain resilience, overlapping economic vulnerabilities and terrorism through to climate change, growing resource insecurity, and transnational organised crime, these challenges render it all the more critical for Southeast Asian countries to focus their efforts on meeting the goals of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda as well as their human rights obligations, especially in view of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR75) this year. 

Accordingly, what needs to feature more prominently in the daily strategic calculations of Southeast Asian policymakers are the exigencies of, what I would term, ‘everyday security’ which encompass dimensions of both human development and environmental sustainability. As Jakarta sinks, electricity tariffs rise in Thailand amid a severe heatwave, and the devastating civil war in Myanmar rages on, we cannot afford to forget that there is a very real human and ecological toll that the region is racking up on a daily basis. Acting on these priorities is what’s needed for Southeast Asian countries to reach that otherwise elusive objective of true comprehensive security. We must ensure that developmental imperatives are not overshadowed by geopolitics, are pursued through a rights-based approach, and are deemed to be pivotal to achieving national security.

For example, in the case of Indonesia, the Asian Development Bank has estimated that by 2100, the impacts of climate change could cost between 2.5–7% of the country's GDP, with repercussions already being felt across multiple sectors and regions. In Vietnam and other countries in this region, heatwaves—reportedly exacerbated by climate change—are increasing the risk of hospitalisation, especially among groups at most risk like the poor and elderly, and are also poised to become a cause of more early deaths. A Greenpeace Southeast Asia report posited that air pollution can be linked to approximately 29,000 deaths in Thailand in 2021. In Myanmar, according to 2022 estimates from the United Nations, junta forces have killed more than 2,000 civilians, arrested more than 14,000, and displaced more than 700,000 people. Combine these statistics with the country’s decreased levels of economic activity which is, in turn, seriously disrupting business operations and driving up the cost of living, and the result is the unravelling humanitarian and economic crisis that we are witnessing today. Moreover, the ‘spill-over’ effects of this crisis for Myanmar’s neighbouring countries are clear: the worsening security situation has led to significant forced displacement, with over 30,000 refugees having fled the country between 1 February 2021 and 17 January 2022.

 In view of the above challenges, I would like to focus my reflections here on three key observations. First, Southeast Asian countries need to be clear about what their developmental imperatives are and to identify these through active and continuous public consultation, in order to ensure that the goals match the needs of the people. To accomplish this, it is crucial that civic spaces for political engagement stay open to facilitate better policy outcomes and dialogue between Southeast Asian governments and societal actors. Indeed, meeting the diverse developmental imperatives of countries in the region requires multi-stakeholder participation to establish the hierarchy of priorities that apply in varying local contexts, so as to ensure that the priorities and interests identified accord with peoples’ lived realities. The sobering case of the Philippines’ privatisation of water services serves to underline this point. Rather than improving the efficiency of water service delivery, privatisation has arguably managed to aggravate social inequality within the country, as the access to and consumption of safe and readily available water remain inequitable across rural communities—and in fact, within the capital of Manila itself. 

 Second, Southeast Asian countries and their development partners, such as Australia, the United States and China, need to invest more in building and reinforcing the social infrastructure required to guarantee that the ‘lifelines’ and necessary guardrails are in place to secure human security and sustainable development. The components of such social infrastructure include a strong civil society and the provision of robust social protections—components that the COVID-19 pandemic has helped spotlight as central to the basic functioning of societies and states. And in making this point, I should note that while the state remains the key actor and duty bearer when it comes to this task, we also need to consider what is possible beyond the state in terms of cooperation and to appreciate the important role played by non-state actors, including civil society and businesses, in contributing to such social infrastructure. Indeed, protecting and respecting peoples’ rights cannot just be about giving them resources or material goods; as noted by Amartya Sen, they must also be about developing peoples’ capabilities to pursue freedoms and enable them to lead a ‘good life’.  

 Finally, in light of the UDHR75, for Southeast Asian governments to gain sustainable traction on their countries’ respective developmental imperatives, they cannot and should not shy away from the language of human rights. Not only have states signed up to international human rights standards, as epitomised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which they are obligated to observe, but the protection of human rights also constitutes a geopolitical and strategic concern for states. As our region becomes more hyper-interconnected, we must realise how human rights abuses can and do result in destabilising as well as transboundary impacts.

Our communities cannot thrive if our members are being systematically mistreated and left behind. Governments in Southeast Asia must realise that this is as much an ethical and social imperative as a political and economic one. Certainly, in the case of migrant and informal workers, who are the backbone of Southeast Asia’s formal and grey economies, the many risks and vulnerabilities they face hold deeper implications for all of us as a society. In particular, the xenophobic and exclusionary treatment of migrant workers during the pandemic starkly revealed the weak social protection systems in place across Southeast Asia, while also underscoring how human rights is a form of economic empowerment. As an integral part of sustainable economic activity, the failure to protect and respect human rights stands to not only heighten everyday insecurity across Southeast Asian countries but also cause the region as a whole to develop in reverse.


Pichamon Yeophantong is Head of Research and Associate Professor at the Centre for Future Defence and National Security at Deakin University. This commentary was developed based on the writer’s presentation at the Southeast Asia Regional Geopolitical Update at The Australian National University on 1 May 2023.”