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Southeast Asia Struggles With Democracy 


The political turmoil in Thailand renews questions about democracy's future in Southeast Asia - a region historically ruled by authoritarian and military governments. Once celebrated democracies in the region - Thailand and the Philippines - are facing problems.

When Philippine President Gloria Arroyo and other Asian leaders were hastily evacuated from the rooftop of a hotel last week, as anti-government Thai protesters stormed an Asian summit, she may have felt a sense of déjà vu.

In 2001, barely four months into her presidency, a group of protesters attempted to storm the presidential palace to drive her out of office, just like what the Thai protesters were trying to do to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Mr. Abhisit and Mrs. Arroyo rose to power following the fall of democratically elected governments. Mrs. Arroyo became president when President Joseph Estrada was forced to step down amid corruption allegations, street protests and the withdrawal of military support.

Filipinos call it "people power" democracy, but analysts say this pattern of government change has brought political instability in Thailand and the Philippines - once icons of democratic change in Southeast Asia.

Give and take plays key role

William Case is a professor at the City University of Hong Kong and author of books on politics and democracy in Southeast Asia.

"Established interests will consent to democracy as long it produces the results and the governments that they like, and once they get governments they don't like they turn the democracy over," Case said.

That is how he explains what happened in Thailand. The red-shirted protesters who taunted Mr. Abhisit last week were from the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) - a group allied with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup because of alleged corruption. UDD supporters come mainly from the provinces, which benefited most from Mr. Thaksin's populist policies.

Elections brought back Mr. Thaksin's allies in government in 2007, and Mr. Abhisit's People's Alliance for Democracy party (PAD) demonstrated for months against the ruling party, taking over the parliament building and the international airport.

When Mr. Abhisit became as prime minister in December after the election commission dissolved the ruling party because of election fraud, the UDD launched counter protests against the PAD, whose supporters are largely urban middle class.

Protests undermine Thailand's constitutional democracy

Thanet Aphornsuvan, a politics professor at Thammasat University in Bangkok, says recent events further weakened Thailand's constitutional democracy.

"The constitution has never been respected, for the past 77 years," the professor said. "So any country, which doesn't have a real higher law, they have it but it never functions, there's always some group, some institution that can intervene and dissolve and rewrite it. In the past year, I think the PAD just started a new revolt of the masses to bring it to the streets, outside the Parliament, to rectify what they deem as corrupted policies of politicians. The UDD is a logical outcome of the PAD - two sides of the same coin. They exploit different situations and reasons."

Thailand's path to democracy has been rocky. The country was ruled by the military, on and off, until the 1992 elections. It entered an era of political stability, becoming a model of democratic transition from military rule, until the return of the military in 2006.

The Philippines' return to democracy, post-1986, has also been rough. Coup attempts plagued the country until the early 1990s. Like the fall of Mr. Thaksin, the end of Mr. Estrada's government in 2001 exposed class divisions in Philippine politics between the middle class, which sided with Mrs. Arroyo, and the lower class, supporting Mr. Estrada.

Case says the violent turn of events in Thailand, last week, may foil the spread of democratization in the region, in places like military-ruled Burma and in communist Laos and Vietnam.

"They could conclude that the problem in Thailand is that there's not enough democracy or, conversely, they could say that this is what happens when you have too much democracy and use it as a pretext to clamp down in their respective countries," Case said.

Elections do not produce desired results

Indeed, democracy remains unsteady in Southeast Asia. Several countries hold elections, but analysts say elections do not reflect the quality of democracy in these countries. The Philippines, which inherited democracy from its former colonial ruler the United States, suffers from weak political institutions, widespread corruption, often violent elections and increasing impunity.

Malaysia and Singapore hold competitive elections but parliament remains in the hands of long-dominant parties with entrenched political machinery. Last month, the Malaysian government banned opposition newspapers from publishing ahead of a hotly contested special election. Cambodia has long been led by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodia People's Party.

Indonesia praised for progress

"There's only one democracy in Southeast Asia today and that's Indonesia. Even there, there are major problems," Case said. "The civilian government does not have full control of the military. There's a lot of intimidation in the local level. But it's the great beacon of democracy in Southeast Asia."

Once ruled by the authoritarian General Suharto, Indonesia's democratic transition has not produced the kind of chaos seen in the Philippines or Thailand. It held parliament elections, this month, and its second presidential election is scheduled in July.

Thanet of Thammasat University says the protests in Thailand also show that people value democracy. He says, in the past few years, Thai people have displayed strong democratic aspirations.

"The uprising of the PAD and the UDD are probably similar to the people power in the Philippines," Thanet said. "We should share these kinds of experience; try to give much more meaning to democracy in this part of the world."

Democracy in Southeast Asia may be far from the stable, but there appears to be less talk about abandoning it, more about strengthening it.

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