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Democracy Troubles in Southeast Asia

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
December 12, 2008

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Thailand's fledgling democracy was dealt another blow last week when the country's constitutional court ordered the ruling party disbanded (BBC) and ousted Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat for election fraud. The court ruling came in the wake of anti-government protests that paralyzed the capital, Bangkok, and just two years after a coup ousted a different prime minister, raising troubling questions about the stability of a country once hailed as a democratic success story. Thailand serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggles of democracies in Southeast Asia, a region whose governments have usually been regarded as reliable U.S. allies.

In the case of Thailand, the country is enmeshed in a political crisis arising from what Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok calls "a deep-seated and irreconcilable conflict (PDF) between the older, more traditional Thailand and a new Thailand." Writing in the Journal of Democracy, he says the bureaucrats, the military, and the monarchy, who have called the shots in the country for decades, are now pitted against the growing demands and expectations of previously neglected segments of Thai society.

There are echoes of Thai concerns elsewhere in the region. A 2008 report from human rights monitoring group Freedom House notes a decline in freedoms in Malaysia and the Philippines, which continue to be riddled by political turmoil. Yet the Economist argues that what would advance democracy is "more capable, more principled and more unifying opposition figures than those the region has seen so far."

In addition to troubles with opposition forces, many Southeast Asian states are battling Muslim insurgencies. A 2007 report (PDF) by the nonpartisan U.S. Congressional Research Service, warned that "Islamist terrorist groups have been able to exploit the sense of alienation produced in part ... by the marginalization of minority Muslim groups in the southern Philippines and southern Thailand."

These setbacks have significant implications for U.S. policy in the region, say experts. Washington has long based its policy in Southeast Asia on maintaining the regional balance of power, which has become ever more important in the wake of China's rise and its growing influence in the region. The United States also has a strong military presence in the region and cooperation with countries like Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand has been critical for Washington's efforts in its "global war on terror."

A new article in the Washington Quarterly, which touches on the region, says while democracy as an ideal is well embraced, many in the region do not see it as a viable political system (PDF), and it loses favor to government systems that emphasize economic development by a wide margin. Experts say support for democracy comes from citizens' perceptions of their own regime's performance, levels of corruption, and the trustworthiness of their political institutions. High levels of corruption, lack of accountability, and poor governance in many of these countries have made the populace skeptical.

Indonesia, however, may be showing signs of bucking the trend. The world's third- largest democracy and the most populous Muslim majority nation, the country grew over 6 percent last year, and its foreign direct investment nearly tripled in 2007. Bridget Welsh of John Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies told CFR.org in a podcast that Indonesia has "deepened its democratization process," and is a leader in the region. A recent Newsweek article, comparing Indonesia to Asia's other large democracy, India, reports how it emerged from the trauma of the 2004 tsunami effectively decentralized with hundreds of newly empowered local administrations. That is combined with what are regarded as a free press and impartial courts, crucial to any vigorous democracy. Indonesia has also led a successful antiterrorism campaign in the region.

However, experts fear the current global economic recession may pose yet another challenge to these countries faced with democratization problems occurring from poor policy performance. Staggering growth at a time of political turmoil may push them toward fewer, rather than greater, freedoms. The Washington Quarterly article above notes: "The rapid and seemingly confident rise of China suggests that authoritarian regimes remain serious competitors for legitimacy."

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