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Thai Coup Raises Concerns of Weakening Democracy in Southeast Asia


The surprise military takeover in Thailand has raised concerns that Southeast Asia may be returning to a period of political unrest and that democracy there may be losing ground. Elected governments in the region face the challenges of weak institutions and endemic corruption.

The ouster of the democratically elected Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinatwara, last week sent shudders across Southeast Asia. Many thought the period of military interventions in the country had ended in 1992 and that democracy had taken root in the kingdom.

"During the 1990s the (Thai) military recognized that it did not enjoy the support of large parts of the population," explains William Case, a Southeast Asia expert at the City University of Hong Kong. "And given the general trend toward democracy throughout Southeast Asia, the military decided to behave in a more professional way so we had thought that the military, while not losing really its capacity, just had come to accept the democratic rules of the game."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in an interview with a U.S. newspaper this week said the coup was a "U-turn" for Southeast Asia.

Only seven months earlier, elements of the Philippine military attempted to oust President Gloria Arroyo. The Philippine plot failed but along with the Thai coup, has raised worries that democracy may be weakening in the region.

The 1986 "people power" protest movement that ousted Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos ushered in a wave of democratization in Southeast Asia. The Thai military, which has led 18 coups over 70 years, retreated from politics in the early 1990s in favor of elected civilian governments. Cambodia, emerging from years of conflict, held elections in 1993. In Indonesia, the resignation of President Suharto in 1998 led to its first direct presidential elections.

There are exceptions, however. Burma continues to be ruled by a military junta and Vietnam and Laos by Communist Party leaders.

But political analysts say democratically elected governments in Southeast Asia face challenges because of flawed systems that stifle reform.

"There's one thing common in all democracies in Southeast Asia - the role of money and patronage," says Patricio Abinales, a professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University. "In a lot of cases votes are won by guns, goons and gold. Political power is controlled by a very few political families. The way in which things are organized makes it difficult for new players and reformers to come in."

Among other problems, many Southeast Asian countries have weak or corrupt legal systems that often can be politically influenced. Election commissions often are ineffective in fighting election fraud or favor certain candidates.

Other analysts say the failure of governments to address issues such as corruption and poverty, and their readiness to adopt authoritarian policies and suppress human rights create disillusionment about democratic institutions. Frustrated citizens then turn to non-constitutional means to achieve reforms.

The Thai military has said it was forced to take power to reunite a divided nation. There has been little opposition to the coup.

Before his ouster, Mr. Thaksin faced months of protests demanding he resign for alleged corruption. His government was accused of human rights abuses. His Thai Rak Thai party was charged with fraud in April's elections - a poll that was meant to ease the political crisis but, because of questions over its legality, only prolonged the stalemate.

Noel Morada is a Southeast Asia expert at the University of the Philippines.

"If you understand how things have played in Thailand over the last three or four years, this situation was actually brought about because of Thaksin's high-handed approach in the political sphere," says Morada. "He antagonized so many sectors. He seemed to believe that because of his popularity he can do anything he wants, so I think this is a consequence (of those actions) rather than simply an effort on the part of the military to intervene for the sake of intervention."

President Arroyo in the Philippines also has faced accusations of corruption, electoral fraud and complicity in the deaths of dozens of political activists and journalists.

Elsewhere in Asia, dissatisfaction over Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, who is also accused of corruption, has led to frequent protests in Taipei.

It is not certain how democracy in Thailand can be revived again after last week's coup. Political analysts say much depends on whether the generals install a credible and independent civilian government.

But some analysts say a dangerous precedent has been set and Thailand can only look toward the Philippine experience to see how such interventions play out in the future.

The Philippine "people power" that has ousted two presidents was once considered a triumph of democracy. But some experts say it has weakened that country's democratic institutions because people now consider such revolts as acceptable in bringing about change.

Experts say the region could see more instability in the next few years. Indonesia's fragile democracy faces challenges from Islamic radicalism and regional separatism, and the Philippines is considering tinkering with its form of government, moving from a presidential to a parliamentary system. As different pressure points emerge, experts say, Southeast Asian democracy faces more tests ahead.