Combining autocracy and digital progress

Deutsche Welle
4 Min Read

Some 700 people have joined the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Cambodia. Among them are four presidents from the region and a host of business leaders. DW’s Manuela Kasper-Claridge reports.Nobody knows, how many ministers from the Philippines have traveled to Cambodia. But almost half of the mid-sized briefing room here at the World Economic Forum in Phnom Penh is filled with members of the Filipino government. The assembled journalists are curious what the fuss is all about and start scanning the brochures that are being handed out quickly.

“Winning the Campaign“ is the title of the flyer, dealing with the Philippines’ ruthless war on drug dealers, the island nation’s President Rodrigo Duterte has been waging since he took office. In fact, some of his critics have called it murder and manslaughter sanctioned by the authorities. According to the country’s foreign minister-designate, Alan Peter Cayetano, this assessment of the foreign press, is, of course, completely wrong.

Duterte’s economic visions

Cayetano prefers to talk about “Dutertenomics” – the economic reforms planned by the Filipino president. He wants to build new airports, 650 kilometers (404 miles) of motorways and wants to commission a subway sytem for Manila. Besides that, Duterte plans to ramp up investment in the country’s digital infrastructure.

There’s no holding them back when government members from Manila describe what “the president wants,” what “the president has done” and what “the president will do.”

They present the Philippines as “East Asia’s miracle.” How the country plans to get funding for all these infrastrucure projects remains to be seen. The government counts on foreign investors and seeks to finance its plans with loans, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez says.

Politically, most countries in Southeast Asia are governed with an iron fist. That’s the case in the Philippines, as well as in Cambodia, the country hosting the World Economic Forum. Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, has been in office for 32 years and plans to keep his post. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for June. Cambodia’s neighboring countries, Laos and Vietnam, are single-party states.

ASEAN, the region’s economic tie-up, has 10 member states. This year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations marks its 50th anniversary. Today, ASEAN is the seventh-largest economic area in the world.

That’s something to be proud of in the eyes of Cambodia’s prime minister, who insists that “ASEAN has managed to maintain stable and strong peace and security with good cooperation amongst its members.”

Digital villages

Countires in Southeast Asia are keen to maintain their economic momentum and are willing to invest massively in infrastructure and digitalization. Thailand’s Digital Economy Minister Pichet Durongkaveroj said his country would “install high-speed broadband networks for 34,700 villages this year.”

“Automation will come and we cannot resist it because it is beneficial for the industry. But we must get prepared for the social consequences,” Durongkaveroj argued.

Participants in the event noted that it was important to prepare people for the changes in society through a radical modernization of education systems.

“Improving infrastructure and the application of that infrastructure is crucial to spreading the dividends of change equallly,” said Naveen Menon, president of ASEAN Cisco Systems.

ASEAN does indeed aspire to let everyone benefit from technological advances. But for autocratic state leaders in the region, the political challenges that come with it are enormous.

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