The Paradoxes of “Vernacularised” Liberalism in Southeast Asia

Research output: Journal Publications and Reviews (RGC: 21, 22, 62)21_Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16–35
Journal / PublicationAsian Studies Review
Issue number1
Online published4 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2023


In response to “indigenous” justifications of illiberalism (e.g., “Asian values”) and the cronyism of electoral authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia, some pro-democracy activists constructed a “vernacularised” liberal discourse that framed demands for human rights and “good governance” in religious-communalist terms. This countered charges that activists were overly Westernised and supported their calls for ethical rule. Yet, after authoritarian rule gave way to democratic transition, liberals often turned against elected governments or were reluctant to challenge extremists who targeted ethno-religious minorities. In analysing these paradoxes, this article uses a contextualist rather than a stipulative, benchmarking approach that ignores contradictions in Western liberalism. Anti-majoritarianism in the Philippines and Thailand was driven by the fear that corrupt populists threatened religious-communalist values, with liberals ultimately turning against democracy. Another paradox is that in Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar liberals first used culturalist arguments to justify upholding civil liberties, but later became reluctant to criticise exclusivist forms of ethno-nationalism that endangered human rights. In the face of democratic backsliding in Southeast Asia, liberalism is being reconfigured, for instance through resistance by a middle-class youth movement against military-monarchical rule in Thailand, through multi-ethnic resistance to the 2021 coup in Myanmar, and by traditionalist Islamic groups in Indonesia. © 2021 Asian Studies Association of Australia.

Research Area(s)

  • authoritarianism, culturalism, democracy, Liberalism, majoritarianism, minority rights, Southeast Asia

Citation Format(s)

The Paradoxes of “Vernacularised” Liberalism in Southeast Asia. / Thompson, Mark R.
In: Asian Studies Review, Vol. 47, No. 1, 03.2023, p. 16–35.

Research output: Journal Publications and Reviews (RGC: 21, 22, 62)21_Publication in refereed journalpeer-review