BANGKOK – When former British prime minister Harold Macmillan was allegedly asked what was most likely to blow a government off course, he replied: “Oh, events, dear boy, events.”
Now, an unfortunate event has again thwarted US President Barack Obama’s plan to visit Indonesia, Australia and Guam next week.
His already thrice-postponed Indonesia trip has been nixed because of the catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
In the long term, the cancellation may prove more catastrophic.
Said Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Programme at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies: “The US decision will send tremors of uncertainty through Southeast Asia.”
Indeed, instead of cancelling, Obama should have expanded his trip to include Bangkok – to urge more conciliation between government and opposition, and Manila – to praise the recent presidential election.
For democracy in this region urgently needs a strong reaffirmation from Obama, especially given the daft sentiments being bandied about that Southeast Asia is not mature enough for a multiparty system and would be better off with disciplined one-party rule.
After last month’s turmoil in Bangkok, some analysts noted that China and Vietnam have one-party, authoritarian regimes – and appear strong and stable because of it.
In contrast, democratic Thailand, and even Indonesia and the Philippines, look weak and unstable.
“There but for the grace of Chairman Mao, go we,” an article in The New York Times surmised about China’s response to unrest in Bangkok.
That is not only doubtful, it is silly. And it would have been nice for Obama to come over here and put the kibosh on such nonsense.
To start with, chairman Mao’s name is hardly synonymous with stability and social harmony.
Think of his Great Leap Forward in the 1950s – it caused havoc across China and resulted in 20 million deaths.
Think of his Cultural Revolution soon after – it led to nationwide chaos, economic disarray and hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Even after Mao died, China has hardly been a bastion of stability.
Remember Tiananmen? Xinjiang? Tibet? All more destabilising and violent than the Yellow and Red Shirt protests in Bangkok.
The fact is that although superficially stable, communist China and Vietnam have deep-rooted problems that could cause massive social turmoil at any time. Consider the burgeoning strikes in those two nations. Look also at how rampant urbanisation in China is being echoed in Vietnam.
That means a conflict between rural poor and rich city dwellers in China and Vietnam is sure to be seen on a TV near you soon.
So forget the grace of chairman Mao and appreciate that for all the hiccups democracy brings: It is a far, far better and more stable system than a one-party dictatorship.
It is just a pity that Obama could not have come here next week to say that loud and clear.
Roger Mitton is a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek and former bureau chief in Washington and Hanoi for The Straits Times. He has covered East Asia for the past 25 years.