Asian democracy at “tipping point”?

Michael Allen
Democracy Digest

In the wake of Indonesia’s “under-appreciated” democratic transition, the success of democracy in Thailand and Malaysia could have important consequences for neighboring states like Singapore and Burma, suggests Duke University’s Donald L. Horowitz.

The Third Wave of democratization confirmed the impact of geographic diffusion – states in a democratic neighborhood were more likely to make the transition than those with fewer. Similarly, in Asia today, Thailand and Malaysia are at “important tipping points,” Horowitz argues, with the former experiencing a “creeping coup” and the latter delicately poised as ethnic cleavages threaten to undermine prospects for a change of regime.

Democratization in the Philippines and South Korea inspired Indonesian opponents of the Suharto regime, he contends. “One could imagine, too, at least some voluntary liberalization, especially in Singapore, if Thailand and Malaysia emerge from their current crises as full democracies. And in Burma, it is easy to imagine renewed popular fervor for democracy that could challenge a regime badly tainted by its brutality to democratic demonstrators in the past.”

Democratic activists are sanguine about the prospects for change.

Thailand’s democratic institutions are “too weak, divided, and politicized”, to manage the forthcoming royal succession, argues political economist Thitinan Pongsudhirak in the Journal of Democracy. He outlines three scenarios for Thai democratization: a diluted bureaucratic elitism, business-based populism, and a genuinely popular bottom-up order “based on the spirit of the 1997 charter.”

Burma’s military junta is currently drafting a new constitution, but it is unlikely to lead to genuine power-sharing. “They might hold elections in 2010,” says Brian Joseph of the National Endowment for Democracy. But the important thing “is not the technical details of the constitution but whether people can organize, whether there’s freedom of speech and mobilization. If parties can’t organize, this is all just an empty exercise.”

The recent disabling law suit against Singapore opposition activists highlighted the authoritarian of the city-state’s ersatz democracy. “The frustrating thing is that people continue to see Singapore as a rules-based society,” said Dr. Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party.

“I want the international community to realize the abuses.” He is encouraged that international organizations like Lawyers Rights Watch, the International Bar Association, and the Inter-national Commission of Jurists have criticized Singapore but he wants “to see democracies like Canada, the U. S. and others in the world pay attention to these matters before it’s too late.”

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