Why Thailand matters

Deadlines pass, standoffs remain, and whether the coming days will be the endgame for the street battles at the heart of Bangkok will only be borne out by the events to come. Teasing out the real story behind redshirts, yellowshirts, their leaders, the monarchy and the divisions in Thai society is best done by others (see the Council for Foreign Relation’s Joshua Kurlantzick, TIME’s parallel with 1992, or Chatham House’s Asia analysts). But the broader implications for the region are equally serious ones.

The Thai Government’s designation of ‘live-fire zones’ marks the most recent escalation, but the striking thing to me – as a distant, but still interested observer – is the unsettling sense of normalcy about these mass protests. The airport occupations in December 2008, the cancellation of the 2009 ASEAN summit in Pattaya, and this more prolonged episode since March, cumulatively indicate a dysfunctional political crisis that electoral democracy can’t cope with. One protest is a shock to the system. Three is just these shocks being normalized. When political expression is reduced to perpetual mass street occupation, something has quite clearly gone wrong with the process. Whether there is potential for wider conflict, is one thing (I happen to think this prospect unlikely), but equally important are the wider signals it sends about democracy in Southeast Asia.

Burma/Myanmmar has long been the country in the shadows, the odd one out that the rest of the region doesn’t want to talk about. When one of its major players is now being torn apart by internal strife, that is quite a different thing. At stake here is the credibility of Southeast Asian democracy and whether there really is a standard for others to emulate.

This is, after all, the part of the world where the democracy vs development debates were argued most vociferously in the 1990s, encapsulated in the catchphrase of ‘Asian values’. But as the war on terror came to Southeast Asia in the search for Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf, democratic freedoms took a back seat to the convenient labels of terrorist and security threats. In the background has been China’s struggle to keep the lid on its own political unity and stability, wanting the free-market economics without the free-market politics. And now, Thailand’s crisis provides a vivid example to point to for the failings of a plural democratic system, and the ability of such a system to manage and serve as the arena for politics to be played out. What happens inside Thailand matters for the example that it sets to others.

Where does this leave the idea of democracy as an aspirational value? Or, for that matter, the sense of whatever values there are that underpin efforts to build a Southeast Asian community? Democracy has always been a contested idea and norm within the region, and as the current fascination with dynastic politics in the Philippines shows, comes with its quirks and variants. What’s also changed about the more recent past is the novelty of a relatively disengaged Europe and America in the region as a whole. All this adds up to a future of drift for Southeast Asian democracy.

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