As dawn broke across Asia last Tuesday the historic shift to popularly elected governments that has underpinned much of the region’s celebrated economic renaissance seemed in safe hands.
The former tea seller, who had just won a historic election mandate in India, was due to call on the country’s president in the first formal step towards being sworn in to run the world’s second-most populous country next Monday with a plan for “less government and more governance”.
Meanwhile, in Indonesia, the furniture maker who seems set to take control of the world’s most populous Muslim nation had just jumped the gun on his opponents and named a former vice-president and businessman as his running mate for the leadership vote in July.
But then, like a sepia image from yesteryear, a brown-uniformed, slightly built Thai general was suddenly hogging television screens around the world with the news he had declared martial law in what by Thursday night became the 13th successful coup since the Thai military got the hang of this sort of thing in 1932. In less than 24 hours all the fault lines in the region’s embrace of democracy were laid bare. Incoming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi may control about two-thirds of the Parliament but his party won only about a third of the vote. He now has to face the reality that India’s states are mostly controlled by the opposition and have a growing sense of independence.
Leading Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo may have the on-again, off-again opinion poll support of half the population, but his lack of clear policies is making the first handover of power between directly elected Indonesian presidents more than ever a contest between personalities and money.
As for Thailand, after 10 acting or elected leaders in eight years and three bouts of martial law, the country, which once stood out as a colourful democracy in a sea of authoritarian regimes, is trapped in suspended animation. It is caught between an old elite way of doing things and the new reality of a region where a rising middle class is demanding more say.
“We still can’t take for granted democracy in these countries. Democracy is emerging in very different ways in different countries across the region,” says Anthony Milner, the Basham professor of Asian history at The Australian National University and international director of Asialink.
Referring to the middle-class Bangkok street activists who have now undermined four Thai leaders in eight years, Milner says: “The Yellow Shirts are really trying to define democracy in a different way.”
China’s prosperity shows that democracy is not a prerequisite for Asia’s much envied economic development model. But China’s emerging growth adjustment pains and the success of post-authoritarian countries such as South Korea suggest that democracy is part of the process of stepping back from throwing cheap labour and regulated capital at making competitive exports and instead shifting to more balanced, domestically driven economic growth.
At the very least, global financial markets backed this approach through the week. Economists upgraded their growth forecasts for an Indian economy run by a strong-willed, apparently corruption-free leader with a clear popular mandate for economic reforms. And the Thai economy’s charmed survival over the past few years on the back of long-standing openness to trade and investment came to a sudden end as months of political turmoil undermined the first-quarter GDP figures. Colonial legacies
Making comparisons between these three countries thrust into the frontline of Asia’s democratic evolution this week is fraught with complications, due to their different history and geography. As Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Thai program co-ordinator Michael Montesano warns: “It may all just be a question of phasing. Indonesia could head down this path [like Thailand] in future.”
But explaining why Thailand is spiralling out of the democratic firmament, just as India is about to embark on another test of the theory that its institutional settings will be ultimately more resilient than those in China – with Indonesia somewhere in the middle – does come down to history and geography.
Thailand’s proudest achievement as a modern Asian nation – the essence of what is known as Thai exceptionalism – is the fact that unlike every other nation (except perhaps Japan) it was not subjected to European colonialism.
For better or worse, the variously named eastern trading companies of the British and Dutch empires left a distinctive mark on India and Indonesia, shaking up the traditional social orders, providing a unifying target for nationalistic independence fighters and leaving a legacy of modern institutions.
Thais can be proud of the way they cherry-picked from the British and French political and economic mores on display in colonies such as Burma and Vietnam, in much the same way Meiji-era Japan plucked modern ideas from the around the world in a shocked response to the arrival of American gunboats on its shores in 1859. And indeed, the vaguely defined kingdom of Siam become a formal territorial state and then the ethnically based nation state of Thailand, which has since become a paragon of the Asian economic development model.
But the current political crisis has revealed how the old Bangkok-based feudal elite, built around the two-century-old Chakri royal dynasty, is extremely reluctant to cede power to the newly emerged political majority in rural Thailand – especially the north-west. The current political impasse does involve more complex factors but, in its essence, a ruling class that was able to absorb ethnic Chinese into its ranks along the way now can’t make way for a newly aspirational regional population that has become wealthier and better educated on the back of Asia’s modern growth. Hankering for strong leadership
John McCarthy, who has watched the modern evolution of these three countries up close as ambassador, in turn, to Bangkok, Jakarta and New Delhi, says that despite all the terrible events and governance problems that have marked Indian and Indonesian democracy, those countries have evolved while Thailand “for all its gifts has not – at least not in same way – and may still have to go through a trial by ordeal.
“India went through a major catalytic event in 1947 [at independence] and that allowed it, with the advantage of a rich intellectual tradition and a talented ruling elite, to develop a workable system, which has survived upheavals and which, despite everything, works. And it has resisted recourse to the military.
“Indonesia did not have the same sort of start, but it has gone through two upheavals which have resulted in a viable system and it has survived the centrifugal forces which have always plagued it. The military has moved back. The system is far from perfect – but it has had to evolve with some pain – and may still have a way to go, but evolve it has.
“Despite Thailand’s outwardly good record of development since the Vietnam War – which kick-started it – and despite the sophistication of its elite and the vigour of its entrepreneurs, it has never gone far enough in making the political changes it needs to make.”
Thailand’s Yellow Shirt pro-royalist street protesters and official opposition Democrat Party argue with some merit that the northern-Thailand-based parties built by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra , which have won elections since 2001, are responsible for mismanagement and corruption. But they have also responded to the needs of the majority population with more regional spending and a capacity to successfully engage new voters.
After losing a succession of elections, the Yellow Shirt camp, which includes many past passionate opponents of military rule, appears to have no alternative but to hanker for a form of guided democracy under the control of an enlightened military and judiciary.
This is a development that may well occur in other countries as newly vibrant democracies run up against the difficult economic decisions needed to keep modern economies competitive, or the ethnic tensions that can be unlocked by giving previously oppressed people freedom to choose.
But the Thai military has already shown it was not up to running a modern economy in 2006, an important lesson to fellow officers in neighbouring countries. And the country’s constant restructuring of constitutional institutions has meant such bodies don’t command the public respect of an institution such as the High Court of Australia. Key to stability
While it is still early days, Modi and Widodo are headed for two of the most powerful offices in Asia carrying an underappreciated key to the recent stability of their two countries, which may become a role model for a longer-term solution to Thailand’s agony.
They have both learnt their political skills as administrators at the lower level of government: Modi as chief minister of the north-western state of Gujarat for a decade, and Widodo as mayor of the central Java city of Solo and then as governor of Jakarta. This distinguishes them from the somewhat Thai-style elites that do exist in their countries, such as the Nehru-Gandhis in India and the Sukarnos in Indonesia.
But it has also given them basic experience of the economic development needs of their countries, a real taste for grass-roots electioneering and less scope to hide any corruption from voters.
India’s 28 states and seven territories have been powerful from the beginning but have gained a higher profile with the recent emergence of charismatic local leaders. Indonesia’s 34 provinces have only recently emerged from under the thumb of the central government, as part of the world’s biggest modern experiment in decentralisation. This saw about 20,000 national, provincial and local elected positions up for grabs at the April elections. By contrast, the 76 much smaller provinces of Thailand have governors appointed by the central government.
Political and economic life in India in particular, but increasingly in Indonesia, is much less focused on the national capital city than in Thailand where Bangkok is clearly the cultural, business and administrative centre of power.
Michael Montesano says one way to calm political tensions in Thailand would be to decentralise and there has been a developing consensus across the political factions about the political and economic value of going down this route. “Many people are thinking of this but it just does not seem possible right now,” he says, noting the 76 provinces might be culled to a more efficient 15-20 partially self-governing entities.
Such a devolution of power might help Thailand deal with its Muslim separatist problem in its southern provinces, just as Indonesia and the Philippines have devolved power to Muslim communities in Aceh and Mindanao. In north-west Thailand it might give the newly aspirational population a chance to show it can actually look after its own affairs rather than just run up failed rice subsidy schemes, as the last Thaksin family-led government did from Bangkok.
Montesano says because Thailand is a functioning monarchy, people take their place in a social hierarchy that starts with the king, which makes Thailand different to the more diverse culture in India and Indonesia.
One curious result is that while Thais have become wealthier and more cosmopolitan in recent years, with rural Thais fully familiar with Bangkok life, the traditional elite remain isolated from the change outside the capital city.
The surprise move to a full coup on Thursday night has prompted forecasts by some economists the situation is now set to get better. But it will take a remarkably open-minded general to absorb these lessons from Thailand’s Asian peers.
Greg Earl is Asia Pacific and national affairs editor. During 20 years at the AFR he has reported on business, economics and politics and held several senior editorial positions. He has also been a foreign correspondent based in Jakarta, Tokyo and New York and now keeps a close eye on Australia's growing economic integration with Asia.