Monday, April 13, 2009

'Managed democracy' just doesn't work

The Thailand Lesson
'Managed democracy' just doesn't work

From today's Wall Street Journal Asia, April 14, 2009
Some Asian leaders like to argue that "managed democracy," where elections are held but old elites and the military really call the shots, is best. To see just how well that works, look no further than Thailand, where the petrol bombs of mob rule have been added to the mix.

APIs this the way to democracy?
Yesterday, military police opened fire on antigovernment protesters in Bangkok. At least 79 people were wounded and one killed in that and other incidents. The same protest group charged into a regional summit in Pattaya on Saturday, forcing Asian dignitaries -- including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso -- to escape via helicopter. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency Sunday. Bangkok has come to a virtual standstill.

The chaos could not come at a worse time for one of Asia's most important economies, and a country which has been taking fitful but determined steps toward democracy for many years now. Mob action is unlikely to advance that cause, but some of the protest, at least, is rooted in genuine frustration. Thais re-elected Thaksin Shinawatra to a second term as their leader in 2005, only to see him overthrown by a military coup the following year. The military-backed government held genuine elections in 2007 and again, Thai voters elected Mr. Thaksin's allies. Last year, that government was overthrown after violent street protests, airport occupations and controversial legal rulings that hobbled Mr. Thaksin's party and political allies.

Many of the so-called "red shirt" protestors on the streets today say they want a return to democracy. Their demands include dissolving the current government and restoring Thailand's pro-democracy 1997 constitution. Jakrapob Penkair, a protest leader, told us by telephone yesterday that "Abhisit's government as we see it is the fruit of a troubled structure. If we don't go to the trouble of resolving it structurally, we will have the same vicious cycle." Undermining the rule of law, however, is an odd way to try to save it.

Despite his best efforts to avoid conflict, Mr. Abhisit is caught in a political corner. A military crackdown endangers his own government's sagging popularity. But he can't easily command popular authority because he himself didn't come to power in an entirely democratic fashion, having been elected by Parliament on the back of protests that brought the country to a standstill. Yesterday he said on national television that he ordered the state of emergency "not to create fear or put pressure or to harm any group of people. It's a step by step process to restore order and stop violence."

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