The Rising East


Sunday, June 2, 2002

Journey toward democracy
often takes an indirect
route through Asia

Bangkok, Thailand >> At the end of a tumultuous parliamentary session this week, 15 censured cabinet ministers survived votes of no confidence as the Thais, like many nations in Asia, struggled to absorb the ideals and practices of democracy into their national cultures.

The ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Pitak Intrawityanunt, Defense Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and Finance Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, were accused of corruption and ineptitude by the National Counter-Corruption Commission. When put to a vote, however, all retained their seats because the Thai Rak Thai party of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has overwhelming control of the 500-member legislature.

The raucous debate, at times filled with personal invective, went on for four days and three nights. When it was over, Meechai Ruchuphan, a former speaker, said: "One had the feeling that perhaps parliamentary debate is much more difficult to perform than prime-time soap operas."

He concluded that the session "was like a typical grade-B Thai movie that offers a wide range of emotional content and roller-coaster excitement" with "verbal violence, slapstick, tear-jerking tragedies, love-hate relationships, suspense, horror and downright disgusting behavior by some of the actors."

Suthichai Yoon, editor-in-chief of the Nation Group, chided the opposition Democratic party's assault as being long-winded and repetitive. "But the evidence and documentation they produced," he asserted, "were damningly convincing."

In Asia today are five stages of political evolution, which should be of more than passing interest to Americans. If it is true that democracies do not go to war with each other and tend to abide by political and economic agreements, the strategic interests of the United States are best served by an Asia of democratic nations or those moving in that direction.

India and Japan are established democracies, Indians having inherited democracy from their British colonial masters and Japanese having tinkered with it before World War II and then having it imposed by the U.S. occupation after the war.

Taiwan and South Korea are new democracies, having shucked authoritarian rule and achieved through elections peaceful transfers of power, the most difficult of political actions. Thailand seeks the same status.

Malaysia and Singapore are what the prominent scholar Robert Scalapino has called "soft authoritarians." Civil rights have been restricted on grounds that economic progress was more important. The hard authoritarians are in China and North Korea on the left and Burma on the right.

The last are the potentially failing states, the Philippines, Indonesia and Pakistan, in which law and order have broken down, political processes barely work, crime and corruption are rampant and economies are crumbling.

Thailand was set on the path toward democracy by King Rama VII, who started moving Thailand, then known as Siam, from absolute monarchy and toward constitutional monarchy in 1932. Ironically, as the dispute erupted in parliament this week, Thais marked the 61st anniversary of that king's death.

Over the years, coups have been the order of the day, the most recent in 1991. The following year, a democratic uprising was successful even though Thai soldiers opened fire, killing 44 and leaving 38 still missing. A new constitution was promulgated in 1997.

Prime Minister Thaksin came to office in February 2001 after a business career in which he became very wealthy. Thais and Westerners who know him question his political skills, saying he is egotistic, oversensitive to criticism and intolerant of differing points of view, especially in the press. Here, as in many places in Asia, politics are personal rather than driven by party differences.

Thaksin scores high in the polls, however, because he has espoused a populist stance in which, for instance, each village has been given a million baht, or about $25,000, for public projects. At the same time, he has been accused of telling different audiences different things, depending on what he thinks they want to hear. A Westerner explained: "It's in the Thai culture not to be decisive."

Even so, changes are in the wind. Thaksin's family is said to have benefitted from his government's policies. But, wrote Pana Janviroj, editor of the newspaper The Nation: "Conflict of interest" is an English term that just a year ago had no proper Thai translation. After giving the new Thai term, Pana said, "It would be naive to think that Thais are not familiar with the terminology. They are."

Richard Halloran is a former correspondent
for The New York Times in Asia and a former editorial
director of the Star-Bulletin. His column appears Sundays.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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