Democracy is in retreat across Southeast Asia — from Bangladesh to Bangkok
Latest coup d’état in Thailand has proved the global democracy analysts wrong. Contrary to what they believed and postulated, democracy in most Southeast Asian nations is in retreat. Across the region resurgence of “predatory states” and absolutism is palpable. Thailand alone has suffered the trauma of military coup twice within a span of a decade. In Bangkok, Democracy Monument — a towering and silent sentinel of freedom, stands today as a tease reminding every moment that enthusiasm of the monitoring organisation, Freedom House, was premature. It had described Southeast Asia as “leading examples of democratization in the developing world.”
Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia, Council on Foreign Relations, in his book, Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, has painted a grim picture.
Since the late 2000s, Southeast Asia’s democratization has stalled and, in some of the region’s most economically and strategically important nations, gone into reverse. Over the past ten years, Thailand has undergone a rapid and severe regression from democracy and is now ruled by a junta. Malaysia’s democratic institutions and culture have regressed as well, with the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition cracking down on dissent and trying to destroy what had been an emerging, and increasingly stable, two-party system.
In Cambodia and Myanmar, hopes for dramatic democratic change have fizzled. Only the Philippines and Indonesia have stayed on track, but even in these two countries democratic consolidation is threatened by the persistence of graft, public distrust of democratic institutions, and continued meddling in politics by militaries.
And in his depiction Kurlantzick has shown how flawed were the postulations of the political theorists at Freedom House. As nations develop economically they do not necessarily become more democratic even as a vibrant middle class takes root.
Meltdown of democracies in the region and elsewhere in the world, seen all the more in the past year and half, prove the trend today is on the contrary. Freedom may still be dear to people but freedom is certainly no more staple. Far more important today are economic growth, social justice and security. And let us be honest in admitting that across Southeast Asia democracy has failed to deliver; elected leaders and governments have failed to offer people what they feel are of far greater importance than just freedom.
And that is why on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square none in China spoke about the incident. Repression isn’t what people are willing to accept. But, in most of Southeast Asia and perhaps elsewhere in the world, there is now a general willingness to trade some of the freedoms with economic developments, security and social justice.
The past two years have been particularly traumatic for Thailand. Time and again it has been rocked by prolonged protests, riots and sporadic bouts of chaos. In sharp contrast, Thailand looks stable and peaceful since military took over the nation in a coup d’état.
A general undertow of disillusionment against democracy is fast finding manifestations in Southeast Asia. Like the Egyptians Thais too are believed to have accepted the overthrow of their elected government and suspension of democracy.
Larry Diamond, Senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, is perhaps closest to the reality pertaining the meltdown of democracy. He is of the opinion that the pace of democratic breakdowns has accelerated and, in net terms, there are now several fewer democracies than when democracy reached its high-water mark globally, around 2005.
With the farce of the last election in Bangladesh, the escalating assault of the ruling Awami League on its political opposition and critics, and a new parliament that lacks opposition representation, democrats globally must acknowledge and respond to the alarming reality that democracy has broken down in the world’s eighth most populous country.
“Two big, dynamic middle-income countries where democracy was expected to consolidate, Thailand and Turkey, are now each in severe political crisis as a result of political polarization and intolerance. In Thailand, the much-theorized agent of democratic defense and reform, the urban middle class is demanding a kind of “time out” from democracy because its party has lost the last few elections. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has veered towards an increasingly authoritarian style as he seeks to maintain his and his party’s hold on power.”
Everywhere in the world, more so in South East Asia, a trend is more than perceptible. The middle class, traditional patrons of reform, are fast turning against democracy or representational republic. And they have, actually, been the agents today encouraging military taking over in coup d’états.
So, when Thais do not pay a dime and do not take to the streets in exploding against the army rule I do not feel surprised or agitated. I know how deeply disillusioned they were with their politics and elected leaders. I can understand why Egyptians facilitated the army coup and celebrated the sacking of their first ever elected president.
I know armed forces can never be agents of reforms but can we ignore the growing popular resentment against democracies. The system cannot flourish just by offering freedom to people. It must also offer people what they yarn for—economic development, stability and social justice. I am afraid, democracies, especially in Southeast Asia, have woefully been found wanting in this. The quality of democracy offered to the people has been deplorable. The story of democracy in this region has been a chronicle of failure.
Over a century and half ago Scottish jurist, professor and historian Sir Alex Fraser Tytler was prophetic in his observation of democracy. He said: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess of the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.”
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