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South-East Asian Fall?

A quarter-century before the Arab Spring of 2011, there was a democratic spring in South-East Asia: the Philippines in 1986, Burma in 1988, Thailand in 1992 and Indonesia in 1998. The Arab Spring was largely drowned in blood (Syria, Egypt, Libya), but democracy really seemed to be taking root in South-east Asia – for a while.

But look at it now. The army is back in power in Thailand, and it never really left in Burma. The Philippines still has the forms of democracy, but President Rodrigo Duterte is a homicidal clown. And last week saw the demolition of the facade of democracy in Cambodia. What went wrong?

In Cambodia’s case democracy never was much more than a facade. Hun Sen, who was just ‘re-elected’ president with 80% of the vote, has been in power for 33 years, first as the leader of a Communist puppet government put in place after the Vietnamese invasion of 1971, later as the ruler of an independent country where opponents sometimes disappeared and his party unaccountably always won the elections.

But there was a relatively free press and a real opposition party, so Cambodia was loosely counted as a democracy – until the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party did surprisingly well in the 2013 election. After that the free media were shut down one after another, and in late 2016 the CNRP was dissolved by the supreme court. No wonder Hun Sen won again.

So nothing much lost there, you might say – but actually the facade of democracy, shabby though it was, did provide some protection for civil and human rights in Cambodia. Now it’s gone. “Whatever Mr Hun Sen wants, he gets. People are so fearful,” said deputy CNRP leader Mu Sochua, who fled to Germany last month. (The CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, is in jail on treason charges.)

Thailand went a lot further into the business of building a real democracy. A populist party that attracted peasants and the urban poor actually got power and started moving resources their way. But the reaction was ferocious: military-backed conservatives, including much of the urban middle class, fought that party in the courts and in the street.

The populist party was forced to change its name and its leader several times, but it was still in business until the military coup of 2014 shut all political activity down. Each year the generals promise a free election for the following year, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Next door in Burma the army never lost power at all. The attempted non-violent revolution of 1988 was thwarted by a massacre of students worse than the one carried out by the Chinese Communist Party on Tienanmen Square the following year.

It’s only in the past few years that the military were forced to hand some power over to civilians through free elections. But the generals then struck back with a pogrom against the Muslim minority in Rakhine state, the Rohingya, whom they falsely accused of being illegal immigrants.

700,000 Rohingyas were driven across the border into Bangladesh, Buddhist Burmese nationalists cheered the army on – and Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-standing leader and hero of the democratic movement, did not dare to condemn the crime. The army is basically back in the saddle.

And then there’s the Philippines, where the elections really are free. The trouble is that in 2016 the Filipinos elected Rodrigo Duterte, a self-proclaimed murderer, by a landslide. At least 3,000 death-squad killings of alleged drug-dealers later, he still has the highest popularity rating of any Filipino president since the ‘people power’ revolution of 1986.

Vietnam and Laos, of course, are still Communist-ruled autocracies. Only two of the eight countries in the region, Indonesia and Malaysia, are real democracies. It falls far short of the high hopes of the late 20th century, but it’s a good deal more than nothing.

Despite local scandals like the jailing of a non-Muslim mayor of Jakarta on spurious blasphemy charges, Indonesian democracy works, and is less corrupt than the regional norm. Malaysia has just voted out the most corrupt prime minister of its history, who is now in jail. And these two countries alone account for almost half the region’s population.

As for the rest, it’s the old game of glass-half-full vs. glass-half-empty. The setbacks are clustering at the moment, creating the impression that the democratic experiment has failed in South-East Asia, but every retrograde regime still faces far stronger democratic resistance than existed in any of these countries a generation ago.

In the century after the French revolution there were two emperors, one ‘directorate’, two monarchies and three republics, and most of the transitions were violent. The general direction of travel, in South-East Asia and elsewhere, is still towards democracy, but it’s a longer journey than it looks.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“So…charges”)

Two Bombs

There were two bombs on Monday. The one in Britain killed at least 22 people and injured 120 as they came out of a concert at Manchester Arena. It was carried out by a suicide bomber named Salman Abedi and claimed by ISIS. The other was in Thailand, and injured 22 people at a military-linked hospital in Bangkok; nobody has claimed responsibility yet. But what happened afterwards was very different.

In Manchester they just kept calm and carried on. The Scottish band Simple Minds went ahead with their scheduled concert at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester on Tuesday night, and 80 percent of the people who had bought tickets showed up for the show. Lead singer Jim Kerr told the audience they would all have “felt cowardly” if they didn’t play, they had a minute’s silence for the victims, and then they rocked.

The response was similar all over the country. Flags were at half-mast everywhere, and they even temporarily halted the campaigning for the national election due on 8 June, but NOBODY suggested that the election should be cancelled. That would be not just be craven; it would be ridiculous.

It was different in Thailand. Nobody died in the Bangkok attack, and the bomb was clearly not intended to kill people. It was timed to mark the third anniversary of the most recent military coup, and the likeliest perpetrators were a sidelined faction in the army (although the authorities will probably blame it on pro-democracy activists).

But the leader of the military junta, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, went completely over the top. When he seized power in 2014, he promised elections in 2015. Using various pretexts, he has pushed them down to 2018, but he is now having second thoughts about the whole idea. “I want everyone to think,” Prayuth said. “If the country is still like this, with bombs, weapons, and conflicts among people … can we hold an election?”

OF COURSE they can hold elections. Why would the occasional bomb stop that? As for “conflicts among people”, those are inevitable in any society, and elections are the way you settle them (at least temporarily) without violence. Prayut is just nervous about holding an election because it might embolden all the supporters of democracy who have been frightened into silence.

He really shouldn’t be nervous, because he has rigged the game pretty thoroughly. The new constitution, ratified last month, makes it practically certain that the military will choose every government even if there are free elections.

Prayut is taking a somewhat subtler approach than the people who succeeded in provoking a military intervention by endless, often violent demonstrations in Bangkok. They thought the best way to ensure that the government stayed in the right hands would be simply to ban the poor from voting entirely, but Prayut realised that this was bound to offend contemporary sensibilities.

The new voting system makes it almost impossible for any single party to win a majority of seats in the lower house of the National Assembly. And the upper house (senate), all of whose 250 members are directly appointed by the military, will have a leading role in choosing who forms the new government unless there is a single clear winner in the lower house.

Thailand has been trapped in a cycle of civil unrest and military intervention since the first left-wing, populist government was elected in 2001 under the leadership of Thaksin Shinawatra. The elite and the urban middle class were appalled by his diversion of government resources from their own interests to those of the rural majority and the urban poor, and they sought military help.

The first military coup came in 2006, but when the soldiers tried to legitimise the government by holding elections under a new military-written constitution, Thaksin’s party won again. He went into voluntary exile after that, but his party, under various names and various leaders, just kept on winning the elections.

The party, now called Pheu Thai and led by Thaksin’s younger sister, was driven from power again by the military coup of 2014. Now Prayut Chan-o-cha and his fellow generals are trying once again to devise a constitution that would keep the “wrong” people from winning elections. In theory it looks pretty Thaksin-proof, but Prayut is clearly getting cold feet about testing it in practice.

The problem is that if the pro-Thaksin voters are disciplined enough – and they probably are – then they could beat the new voting system by splitting into several parties but running only one of them in each constituency that they have a chance of winning. Then reunite those parties in a coalition when the National Assembly meets, and you have an instant majority government and no call for intervention by the military-run senate.

Monday’s bomb in Bangkok may indicate increasing divisions in the army. Even some of the soldiers must be having doubts about the military’s ability to keep permanent control of the country’s politics, and also about the autocratic ways of the new (and widely unpopular) king. The next turn in the long saga of Thailand’s quest for a genuine democracy may not be far off.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“Prayut…sensibilities”: and “The problem…senate”)

What’s Wrong with Southeast Asia?

Thirty years ago most of Southeast Asia was run by thuggish dictatorships. Then the Philippines showed the rest of the world how to get rid of the dictators without violence, and its non-violent example was watched and copied around the world. But now the thugs are coming back where it all started.

The democratic revolution in the Philippines in 1986 was quickly followed by the non-violent overthrow of the generals in Thailand in 1988(though they continued to intervene every few years), and then by the fall of Suharto’s 30-year dictatorship in Indonesia in 1998. By then the example had also spread through the rest of Asia (democratic revolutions in Taiwan and South Korea and even an attempt at one in China).

The democratic wave swept across the rest of the world too: Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in 1989-91, South Africa in 1994, a large number of Latin American and African countries in the past quarter-century, and even a brave (but failed) attempt at democratisation in several Arab countries. More people now live in democratic countries than in dictatorships.

But in the cradle of the non-violent revolutions, things are going backwards. Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, is a self-proclaimed murderer who boasts about how many people his death squads kill. “If you are corrupt, I will fetch you using a helicopter to Manila and I will throw you out,” he declared in December. “I have done this before, why would I not do it again?”

“Duterte Harry” (as he is called in homage to Clint Eastwood’s film portrayal of lawless cop “Dirty Harry”) was elected to the presidency with a massive majority last year, and he is still hugely popular with ordinary Filipinos. But this is not democracy; it is populist demagoguery of the most extreme kind.

About 8,000 suspected drug dealers and users have been killed by police and vigilantes, with Duterte’s warm approval and encouragement, since he was elected last June. And the fate of Thai democracy is equally disheartening, although the strongmen there wear military uniforms.

Thai democracy, deeply polarised by a long-running political battle between the urban middle class and the rural poor, fell to a military coup in 2014. Two years later, the Thais ratified a constitution that grants the army permanent power over the political system, including the right to appoint all 250 members of the Senate. And even so the military have now postponed the promised election from this year to 2018.

Indonesian democracy still survives, and the latest president, Joko Widodo, is a genuinely popular figure of unimpeachable honesty. In the 2014 election he saw off his opponent, a former general and ex-son-in-law of the old dictator Suharto, with ease. But there are signs of rising extremism in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country.

The hard-line Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), which demands a sharia state in a country where 15 percent of the population are not Muslim, has been leading violent demonstrations against Basuki Purnama, the ethnic-Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta. He is facing spurious charges of “insulting Islam”, but the FPI’s real objection is that non-Muslims should not hold positions of authority over Muslims.

There is clearly support for this view among some of the capital’s Muslims – and to make matters worse many senior military and police officer have had close links with the extremist organisation. Indonesian democracy is certainly the healthiest in the region, but it faces serious threats.

And then there is Burma, the latest convert to democracy in Southeast Asia. After half a century of almost continuous military rule Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning leader of the democratic opposition, is finally the effective leader of an elected civilian government.

But she still operates under a military veto, and she has to close her eyes to the brutal attacks on the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that the army and other Burmese ultra-nationalists insist is not really Burmese at all. The army is using this conflict to burnish its own nationalist credentials and undermine the fledgling democratic government, and “The Lady”, as she is universally called, dares not defy it.

There is no country in Southeast Asia where democracy is really secure, and in most cases the main reason is the overweening power of self-serving military and police forces. Power struggles between the old political and economic elite and “new” politicians like Widodo in Indonesia and the brother and sister Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand, both overthrown by military coups, play a large role too.

But there are many other new democracies with over-mighty militaries and privileged elites that do not want to let go, and yet the failure rate is significantly lower everywhere else except the Middle East. There may be some common cultural factor that unites the Southeast Asian countries, but it’s unlikely: they are variously Buddhist-, Christian-, or Muslim-majority.

So what’s the matter with them? Maybe it’s just bad luck. After all, they aren’t actually a statistical sample.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“About…uniforms”; and “There…threats”)

Brazil Impeachment

Q: What’s the difference between the coup that overthrew the elected government in Thailand in Thailand in 2014 and the coup that has now removed the elected government in Brazil?

A: The coup-makers in Thailand wore uniforms.

The Brazilian Senate has just voted 55 to 22 to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. She will be suspended for the next 180 days while the same body tries her on the charge of understating the size of the budget deficit before the last election.

If two-thirds of the senators find her guilty, she will be permanently removed from office. Since they have just voted to impeach her by a bigger majority than that, we may take it for granted that she is a goner.

As the long evening droned on, it was quite clear that most senators were only interested in the outcome, not the evidence. On several occasions the Speaker even had to tell them to stop talking and put their phones away. This was about politics, not about justice, and the deal was already done.

Two justifications have been offered for this unseating of an elected president, but both of them are pretty flimsy. The first is the legal justification, which is that Rousseff’s government tweaked the accounts a bit to make Brazil’s financial situation look less bad before the last election in 2014.

She did, but which elected government anywhere does not try to put the best face on its figures? Anyway, nobody believes that this is the real reason for her removal from power.

The broader political justification is that she has made a mess of the economy. The economy certainly is in a terrible mess – in each of the last two years it has shrunk by 4 percent, one-tenth of the population is unemployed, and inflation is exploding – but every big commodity-exporting country has been in the same mess since the global financial crash of 2008. The demand for their exports simply collapsed.

Rousseff didn’t create this crisis, but inevitably she gets the blame for it. That, rather than some obscure legal issue, is why nearly two-thirds of Brazilians think she should be impeached. But while she might done better at managing the crisis, in a democracy political questions like this are normally settled by elections, not by impeachment.

The 55 senators who voted to impeach her all know that, but they couldn’t resist the temptation to take her down. Which brings us to the real motive behind all this, and the worrisome comparison with Thailand, where the generals took over in 2014.

The Thais, like the Brazilians, evicted their military rulers from power in the 1980s by non-violent political action. As is bound to happen in a democracy, both countries then developed powerful political movements that demanded a redistribution of wealth in favour of the impoverished half of the population. And in both countries the prosperous urban middle classes mobilised against this threat.

The hopes of the Thai poor were focussed on Thaksin Shinawatra (prime minister 2001-2006) and later, after the military forced him into exile, his sister Yingluck Shinawatra (prime minister 2011-2014). In Brazil the left-wing leader was Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the Workers’ Party (president 2002-2010), and subsequently his close ally Dilma Rousseff (president 2010-2016).

In Thailand the struggle between the rural and urban poor (the ‘yellow shirts’) and the defenders of the economic status quo (the ‘red shirts’) descended into the streets early, and had got quite bloody by the time the generals seized power in 2014. They intervened in favour of the ‘red shirts’, of course, but they seem determined to hold on to power themselves for the forseeable future.

Brazil’s politics have been less violent and the military have not intervened (yet), but it is just as much a class struggle – made more intractable by the fact that in Brazil social class is colour-coded. The white half of the population is mostly prosperous, the “pardo”(mixed-race) and black half mostly poor.

The most important single measure of the Workers’ Party government is the famous Bolsa Familial, a straight cash paymen to those whose income is below the poverty line. To qualify, they must only ensure that their children attend school 85 percent of the time and are fully vaccinated. It has lifted 45 million people, a quarter of the population. out of poverty.

Nobody will admit that this crisis is about ending government subsidies for the poor, but the crowds demonstrating against Rousseff’s government have been almost entirely white. So is the cabinet sworn in by the new interim president, Michel Temer. But Temer is going to have a very hard time running the country.

Outraged Workers’ Party supporters are already being radicalised by the “coup” that has driven Dilma Rousseff from power and the struggle is moving into the streets. Mass demonstrations and barricades are now a common sight, and the protesters will find it hard to resist disrupting the Olympic Games that start in Rio de Janeiro in early August.

Which may provide the excuse for the Brazilian right to welcome the military back into power.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 15. (“As the long…done”; and “The most…poverty”)