Thailand’s Coup Stalls Southeast Asia’s Democratic Gains

15 February 2007

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Democratic gains in Southeast Asia came
to a halt last year, experts say, largely due to Thailand’s September
coup. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, regional analysts say there
is more to democracy than elections – but elections are still vital.

Soldiers on the streets of Bangkok following the coup
Soldiers on the streets of Bangkok following the coup

steady gains over the first half of this decade, political experts say
efforts to strengthen democracy in Southeast Asia stalled last year
when Thailand’s military ousted the elected government of Thaksin

Carl Thayer, political science professor at the University of New
South Wales, says that even before the Thai coup, 2006 saw few
democratic developments in the region. Communist governments still rule
Laos and Vietnam, Burma’s generals remain in charge after 40 years, and
Cambodia has effectively become a one-party state.

“If we look at 2006 and made an assessment, we have to say there was
no major progress in the region because of the setback in Thailand and
a slow process everywhere,” he said. “No change in Myanmar, no change
in Brunei, Cambodia. Laos would also be in those sorts of categories.”

Just a few years ago, there were rising expectations of greater democracy in the region.

Several Southeast Asian countries held successful elections and
changed governments peacefully. That was a big change from the previous
three decades, when strongman leaders dominated the region’s
governments – holding office for more than 20 years.

In 1998, Indonesians forced out President Suharto, who had led the
country for 31 years, and now the country is a functioning democracy.

Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, recently
said he sees Indonesia as proof that democracy can succeed even as
impoverished countries try to grow economically.

“We’re now familiar with the dictum that democracy cannot precede
economic development – without economic development there can be no
democracy. That is to say that democracy can wait even if it means
waiting forever,” he said. “This of course is the logic of autocrats
and dictators. And with the fall of Suharto, Indonesia’s rapid
emergence as a new democratic nation gives the lie to the excuse.”

But some countries in Southeast Asia define democracy differently
than do most Western nations. For instance, although Singapore and
Malaysia hold elections, they have been dominated by a single party for
four decades. Both countries restrict the media and activity by the
political opposition.

Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim, who hopes to run in his country’s next
elections, says genuine democracy requires several crucial elements
that go beyond voting.

“We want governments to respect fundamental freedoms of all citizens
including minorities and the marginalized,” he said. “Government must
be accountable to the people, decision making must be transparent,
judiciaries must be independent, the press must be free and there must
be rule of law.”

Many people were alarmed by the military coup in Thailand, because
of fears it could encourage other governments in the region to retreat
from democracy. But some Thai advocates of democracy argue that Mr.
Thaksin had used the ballot box to move the country toward a one-party
system. They say he tried to quash criticism in the media and had
managed to so dominate parliament that his policies faced little

Anand Panyarachun, a former Thai prime minister, says Mr. Thaksin
used populist policies, such as aid to farmers, to build voting
support. This enabled him to brush off criticism from democracy

“Thaksin was able to say ‘If you don’t like me why don’t you play by
the rules? Let’s return power to the people and let’s have an
election,'” said Anand. “[But] the issues that were raised against him
should not and could not be decided by a popular vote.”

The government Thailand’s military installed promises new elections
by the end of this year, and Professor Thayer thinks after that, Thais
will build a stronger democracy.

“Once elections are held and power devolves back to civilians I
think we’ll see the Thai middle class coming back with a vengeance to
try to make up for the mistakes that would allow such a popularly
elected prime minister to ruin the system – they will have learned from
that,” he said.

Eventually, Thayer says, all of Southeast Asia will become more
democratic – and leaders will meet public demands for accountability
and political progress.

Council on Foreign Relations - A Nonpartisan Resource for Information and Analysis

Asian Military Drift

Asian Military Drift

Thai military police stand guard after the coup in Bangkok. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

February 5, 2007

Prepared by:

Four months after promising power would be “returned to the people,” leaders of a military coup in Thailand remain in charge, with half the country under martial law. Talk of a coup is also in the air in Bangladesh, amid a political crisis (The Economist).
In Sri Lanka, the revival of the country’s lengthy civil war has raised
the prominence of military voices on its political scene.

democracies in South and Southeast Asia appear to be swinging back
toward militarism. The events leading up to the changes differ: While
former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra faced widespread protests
and allegations of corruption before the bloodless coup, Dhaka has
become a violent battleground
for a feud between political parties whose leaders—both former prime
ministers—despise one another. However, Thailand and Bangladesh share
the problem of having to deal with rising extremism within their
borders. As this new Backgrounder
explains, in Thailand, the military junta faces attacks by insurgents
in its southern Muslim provinces that have caused nearly two thousand
deaths in the past three years. The new government blamed Thaksin’s
confrontational approach to the separatist movement. But the junta has
made little headway in stopping the violence and the insurgents “ have shown absolutely no interest
in negotiations or in the possibilities accorded by the change in
government,” writes Zachary Abuza, a Southeast terrorism expert at
Simmons College in Boston, on Counterterrorism Blog.

Bangladesh, Islamic militant extremists have gained a foothold in the
vacuum left by political chaos, explains Sumit Ganguly in a report
for the United States Institute of Peace. On the rise is the number of
Islamist political parties with links to Bangladeshi militant groups,
including one linked to synchronized nationwide bombings in 2005. If
the United States continues to ignore the crisis in Dhaka, “Bangladesh
could become another Afghanistan—a base for regional terrorism—and damage America’s growing relationship with South Asia,” write Joshua Kurlantzick and Anirudh Suri of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in The New Republic.

on democracy in Asia is not new: General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s
current president, seized control of the government there in a 1999
coup. Thailand and Bangladesh, along with other countries in the
region, have followed the example, increasingly relying on the
militarism while facing attacks by rebel groups. Over the past few
months Sri Lanka, ravaged by a three-decade civil war that ended with a
peace treaty in 2002, has experienced a resurgence in violence as the
government has squared off once again against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. This Backgrounder
looks at the history and renewal of the conflict. A new commentary by
the Indian think tank South Asian Analysis Group says the lines between
the government’s military and political agendas have been blurred. The
government is “pursuing a military agenda while avowing a peace
process” and “military operations have become an important part of [President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s] political strategy advantage, unlike his predecessors.”

Philippines has also pursued a militaristic approach to handling its
extremists; U.S.-trained Filipino military chiefs have embarked on
ground operations that led to the January death of a senior commander
of Muslim separatists Abu Sayyaf.
But even as the military touts its success over terrorist groups, human
rights organizations have raised concern over military involvement in
nearly eight hundred extrajudicial killings of activists since 2001.
Amnesty International takes a look at the political killings. A January report (Manila Times) released by a government-appointed commission confirmed the military’s involvement in the deaths.

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