Peacebuilding in Southeast Asia

When Might Liberal Peace Fail and Illiberal Peace Prevail?

By: Puck Holthuis


Liberal peacebuilding is a term many Western nations are familiar with and support. It commits to democratic ideals, such as rule of law, human rights, free markets, property rights and inter-group reconciliation.1 Often, Western actors dominate the process of (liberal) peacebuilding in post-conflict nations, while these often involve non-Western countries. This is an issue for liberal peacebuilding, as it has been criticized for being too monolithic. It does not consider that non-Western nations or regimes and their cultures may be less receptive to Western democratic politics.


Illiberal Peacebuilding

Although Western presence in the form of liberal peacebuilding is commonly implemented in non-Western post-conflict nations, it occasionally backfires when the methods used do not align with local processes, laws and culture. Not only is the transition from a post-conflict nation to a democracy a delicate process with many risks involved, but collaborating with foreign cultures also requires thoughtful consideration.


A different kind of peacebuilding, called illiberal peacebuilding, is a process that is more common in a number of Southeast Asian countries, among other nations. Illiberal peacebuilding is dominated by local actors as opposed to Western powers, and drives on clientelism, cronyism and corruption, rather than economic neo-liberalism. An additional important characteristic of illiberal peacebuilding is that regime security is prioritised, rather than stability, accountability, human rights and social inclusion.1


Illiberal peacebuilding in Practice

Several Southeast Asian countries showcase this type of peacebuilding. For example, whereas stability is a liberal peacebuilding ideal, Aceh (a province of Indonesia) and Nepal would not fare well in terms of equity should these nations initially opt for stability. Negotiating with subnational elites in Indonesia and Myanmar would ultimately be more promising for maintaining long-term peace, even though this process may be viewed unethical from a Western perspective as it encourages inequality.


Sri Lanka and Myanmar (also known as Burma) showcase that elite bargaining (discrete agreements that seek out redistribution of power and resources among the elites) is more politically inherent. As a consequence, these more common practises should not be discarded as improper characteristics of a system that, from a Western perspective, may seem inappropriate and unfair. Instead, understanding such practises and acknowledging their pertinence could foster better cooperation and yield more desirable results.


The recent protests in Bangkok against Thailand’s current regime highlight the local illiberal peacebuilding characteristics as well, such as the prioritization of regime security. Individuals can receive up to 15 years in prison for insulting the Royal family. This includes stepping on Thai currency on which the king’s face is printed or making negative remarks on the monarchy. It follows that many locals refrain from commenting on their king out of fear of persecution, or simply because they are unwilling to do so. In many Western nations, however, freedom of speech is not only the norm, but a much respected and appreciated pillar on which societies are built and continue to develop. This logically makes it difficult to understand practices that move away, even against, practices that are deemed valuable in Western nations.


Understanding and Cooperation

The practices and objectives of illiberal peacebuilding are perhaps controversial, as they risk strengthening corruption, inequality and elitism. Yet, in countries where politics and culture differ greatly from how Western nations tend to operate, identical methods for peacebuilding in both these parts of the world struggle for similar success. That is not to say that practises of inequality or corruption should be condoned. Rather, it is important to understand how peacebuilding tends to manifest in certain Southeast Asian nations as well as in other parts of the world.


The means to achieve peace and stability in Southeast Asia differ from how most Western nations would approach this objective through liberal peacebuilding. However, there are many alternatives to this way of peacebuilding depending on the region of interest.2 Liberal peacebuilding is not a one-size-fits-all process, although it has been successful in various nations. However, for countries to achieve stability and peace, it is a better option to work alongside their culture and norms as opposed to implementing a sudden new way of life that may be too drastic a change.


This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group.


For source references, please download the PDF version.

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About the Author:

Puck Holthuis is a master student Conflict Studies & Human Rights at Utrecht University. She recently relocated back to The Netherlands after living abroad since 2006 spending most of her years in South Africa and China. She combines her love for writing with her analytical capabilities, shaping an ambitious young professional with global insights.

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