The State: Contesting the Liberal State (WP3)

Southeast Asia’s political history has been marked by the emergence of states characterized by a great diversity of regime forms, institutional capacities, and ideological orientations. This diversity is a product of the region’s ethnic and religious heterogeneity, varied colonial experiences, the uneven impact of Cold War-era conflicts, and of differing patterns of economic development. Amidst this diversity it is perhaps not surprising that many Southeast Asian states continue to face serious questions concerning their claims to political legitimacy.

This work package takes as its starting point the fact that the liberal/illiberal character of the state has been, and remains, one central dimension of ideological and political contestation across Southeast Asia. It is, furthermore, based on the assumption that liberalism and democracy may fruitfully be regarded as analytically distinct and that states are akin to mosaics in that they combine liberal and illiberal and democratic and undemocratic elements in different, perhaps unique, ways. As others have recognized, the formal and informal institutions and practices assembled within the state are often in tension, not only with one another, but also with legitimating ideas. We posit that the frictions thus generated drive, at least to a certain extent, political change in southeast Asia. By mapping these assemblages and identifying the areas of friction, WP3 will advance our understanding of political change, not only at the macro level but also in a variety of distinct institutions and policy areas. In the study of Southeast Asian politics, questions concerning democratization have been privileged, while the fate of political liberalism has been less well understood. Seeking to partially redress this imbalance, the research conducted within this work package therefore takes “the liberal state and its discontents in Southeast Asia” as its overarching thematic focus. The central research question is: How is the character and legitimacy of the Southeast Asian state contested, and with what consequences?

WP3 takes political ideology seriously. It explores how ideas about the state—and especially its relationship to rival conceptions of “the people”—have been articulated across Southeast Asia. Recognizing that faith remains an important source of legitimating ideas in the region, we will explore how religious movements, beliefs, and practices continue to provide powerful challenges to liberal rationalities and modes of governance. The relationship between political regimes and state practices will be explored, with particular attention paid to civil-military relations and to civil-society activism. Finally, we ask to what extent institutions such as courts and national human rights commissions are able to protect enclaves of political liberalism within the state itself as well as within civil society.

A caveat, the research to be undertaken as part of this work package does not assume that the liberal state exists or has ever existed, in any perfect form, in Southeast Asia (or anywhere else, for that matter). However, it does assume that the politically liberal state has been and remains an important but deeply contested point of reference in discourses of political legitimation—domestically, regionally, and globally.


Tomas Larsson


Pham Quynh Phuong

Research Results