Magazine article The World Today

Democracy Doubts

Magazine article The World Today

Democracy Doubts

Article excerpt

The rise of China and the international financial crisis could be reducing interest in democracy as a solution to Southeast Asia's problems of political stability. Divisions still run deep in Thailand despite the violent dispersal of the latest protests. There are democracy doubts too in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. Singaporean leaders have never been believers.

tHE VIOLENT END TO THE STREET protests that disrupted Bangkok for two months raises questions about the political stability not only of Thailand, but of Southeast Asia more generally. The issues that the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), or 'red shirts', raised about the legitimacy of the current Democrat Party led, coalition government of Oxford educated Abhisit Vejjajiva remain unresolved.

In fact, the recent demonstrations are just one particularly violent act in a slow moving Thai drama that began with the September 2006 military coup that toppled the democratically elected, but authoritarian, government of Thaksin Shinawatra. The monarchy, the Bangkok elite and the urban middle class that supported the coup and the current Abhisit government have since struggled to justify their hold on power.

In particular, the peasant farmers fromthe north, who formthe backbone of Thaksin's red shirted support, no longer accept their traditionally determined political subordination. The Bangkok elites respond to this uncharacteristic lack of deference with the traditional remedy of repression. There is little prospect for reconciliation as cleavages deepen between the elite and themass, rural and urban.

Thailand's inability to sustain a stable democracy dramatically crystallises an evolving pattern of political uncertainty across Southeast Asia. Despite the setback of the 1997 financial crisis, the core Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) economies: Singapore; Malaysia; Philippines; Indonesia and Thailand, have achieved rapid export-oriented growth over four decades. Post-Communist states like Vietnam and Cambodia can also boast significant economic development since embracing the market in the 1990s.

But ruling elites resist any transition from authoritarian, single party or military rule - with opaque government-business links and graft ridden bureaucracies - to a more open, multiparty, pluralist democracy.

Indeed, despite emerging relatively unscathed from the global financial crisis, running budget surpluses, and growing at rates that make ClubMed Europeans faint with envy, these economies appear unable to escape from a middle income trap. Southeast Asia has not ascended the technology ladder and gross domestic product remains inequitably distributed between rich and poor, rural and urban.

VIOLENCE AND VOTE-BUYING

Ironically, where these middle income economies have democratised, elite pilfering and the gap between rich and poor have either increased or become more visible. In Thailand this has led to violence and political breakdown. But elsewhere the supposedly vibrant democracies of Indonesia and the Philippines are far from untroubled.

InManila, the election of Benigno 'Noynoy' Aquino, son of former President Corry Aquino, ended the troubled incumbency of Gloria Arroyo. But it hardlymarked the end of dynastic politics. An entrenched plutocratic elite of forty families controls the political process. Democracy Philippine style is consequently a bizarre amalgamof vote buying and celebrity soap stars posing as populist politicians.

Nor is the electoral process violence free. In the province ofManguinado the Arroyo linked Ampatuan clan sought to reinforce its local dominance bymurdering political opponents. Fifty-seven people died in last November's ManguinadoMassacre, including thirty reporters.

Despite inaugurating People Power in the region in 1987, the economy languishes and relies on remittances from Filippinos working overseas. In the 1950s international agencies put the Philippines economy on a par with Japan. …

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