The shockwaves from Thailand’s coup have reverberated across Southeast Asia. The May 22 decision by the army to take power has had some ironic consequences, making Cambodia look free and stable in comparison and Myanmar’s democratic reforms look positively progressive.
Dozens of dissidents on military round-up lists have fled to Cambodia and elsewhere, and some foreign investors and tourists have begun looking beyond Thailand.
It could also be another indication that democracy is incompatible with the region. No country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has a robust electoral democracy. Singapore, one of the world’s least corrupt, most transparent and most economically vibrant city-states, has long been marked by authoritarian rule, a strong central personality and free-market economics.
Does it follow that this is the most practicable political model for the rest of the region to emulate?
The Philippines has had a series of elected leaders overthrown by popular uprisings due to corruption and abuses of power. Indonesia is still evolving out of the legacy of Suharto. Malaysia’s political opposition is rendered impotent by dubious legal challenges.
Laos and Vietnam, despite liberalisations, still have socialist one-party rule. Brunei is a resource-rich sultanate and East Timor is a brand new state – we’ll have to see what it brings to the region politically.
These countries all have parliaments, national assemblies or elections of some sort, but the default systems seem to revert to rule by strongmen backed by a party uncomfortable with dissent. Cambodia is no exception and Myanmar has a long way to go before it can say it has left behind decades of military rule.
In Thailand, the military has taken control partially because of insufficient faith in the system. Democratic elections are regularly undermined by allegations of vote buying and “parliamentary dictatorship” – the erosion of checks and balances through nepotism, cronyism and the loss of independence of public institutions and the judiciary. Restructuring of the armed forces and exploitation of the patronage system are other key factors.
In industrialised democracies, corruption cases are regularly front page news while large portions of the population bemoan every election result. There is often the suspicion that democracy is easily manipulated.
The general difference, though, is a more resilient system of checks and balances, a more independent judiciary and faith in the rule of law to be vigilant of abuses of power. But these systems have taken centuries to evolve.
Take away some of the pillars and the whole system can crumble, but the cornerstone is public faith in an imperfect system. As Winston Churchill said in 1947: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.”
Looking at it globally, in the early 1970s only 35 countries could be considered electoral democracies. Today, according to Freedom House, it is about 122, or almost two thirds of the world’s sovereign states. The trend among the global population has undeniably been one of increasing demand for political participation.
There is little to indicate a cultural divide, that Southeast Asians are inherently less inclined to place their faith in democracy. But checks and balances, rule of law and institutional independence are often weak here; whether predominantly Islamic, Buddhist or Catholic, most countries in the region have similar failings.
Singapore has a thriving economy, an infrastructure and education system to envy, and some of the world’s best numbers on growth, transparency and corruption. But Singapore has had the advantage of being a city-state, easier to manage from above, and healthy trade has helped reduce the significance of class and ethnic divisions over time.
Would Singapore have modernised as quickly with a full multiparty democracy? Perhaps not, but it might have kept more of its cultural heritage if it had. For modern, diverse economies, it is probably not the model to emulate in the long term.
Thailand’s pre-coup street protests by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) called for governance by an appointed “council of good men”. But power corrupts, and economies and politics have become too diverse and interconnected for a politburo or appointed council to handle.
For the Thai junta to focus on rooting out the influence of one man and his allied parties rather than the institutional weaknesses that plague the country is a mistake; the same failings have been shared by all the parties and in the future will continue under a different banner.
Institutional independence, accountability and transparency, political checks and balances, strong education, human rights and the rule of law rely on supportive and vigilant politicians, media and citizens.
But in the absence of some of these elements, is democracy still compatible with the region? With the ASEAN Economic Community set to start next year, increased growth, stability and integration may depend on leaders and the public thinking that it is.
Ezra Kyrill Erker is a Senior Writer for Post Weekend