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People Power: Panacea or Pox?

Prepared by: Alexandra Silver
Updated: April 21, 2006

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For the second time this month, mass demonstrations have forced concessions (Economist) from the leader of an Asian nation. The pro-democracy protests in Nepal, organized by an alliance of seven political parties in conjunction with Maoist rebels, have lasted over two weeks, and clashes between King Gyanendra's troops and demonstrators have proven fatal. Curfews are in effect, and UN human rights monitors are now banned. This Reuters timeline runs down the events leading to the current situation, beginning with the king's suspension of the democratic government in early 2005.

The protests in Nepal are the latest manifestations of what in Asia is often called "people power." Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra resigned in early April after winning a snap election boycotted by the opposition. In the Philippines, where people power got its name with the peaceful ouster of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos twenty years ago, street protests prompted President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to impose a state of emergency in February, including a ban on public protests.

Allegations of corruption and authoritarianism were factors in all of these places, as they were in earlier peaceful efforts to topple authoritarian regimes in China (1989), Myanmar (1988) and Indonesia (1998). Still, these are vastly different cases that led to vastly different results.

Even when successful, as Japanese analyst Takashi Shiraishi notes in the Daily Yomiuri, the success of people power movements often has proven fleeting. "It is worth noting that in the Philippines, people power, though repeatedly able to force the national leader from office, has signally failed to transform the political regime itself."

Thailand, writes Shawn Crispin in Asia Times, may offer a similarly fleeting example. While crowds forced Thaksin to resign as prime minister, he remains in the Thai parliament and leader of the Thai Rak Thai party. "If it becomes apparent that Thaksin is still pulling the strings," Crispin notes, "protest leaders have already vowed to return to the streets." Meanwhile, the Bangkok Post reports recent elections have resulted in a senate that "is expected to be even less independent" than the previous one, suggesting further that Thaksin's decision to step down may change little.

Nepal's monarchy, too, already has survived one pro-democracy movement—in 1990. This time, however, other nations are voicing their support for some of the protesters' goals. The United States called on King Gyanendra to "restore democracy" and envoys from India, Nepal's southwestern neighbor, met with the leader (Times of India). Fearing wider violence, the International Crisis Group has urged the international community to take on a larger role.