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Trouble in Philippines, Thailand highlights setbacks for democracy in Asia

          With only a single rising star on the horizon, democracy in Southeast Asia is taking a beating as mass demonstrations seek to dislodge an elected but authoritarian leader in Thailand and the Philippines reels after a weeklong state of emergency over an alleged coup plot.
Across the region, the health of democracy ranges from fragile to abysmal, with one once unlikely exception. Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation and still recovering from three decades of dictatorship, is making significant progress toward rule of law, media freedom and transparency.
"The problem in some cases is the abuse of weak democracies, the exploitation by leaders of those parts of the system which aren't really democratic or strong," says Robert Broadfoot, of the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy.
Although the tide against him appears to be rising, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand has managed to survive mass street protests calling for his ouster on grounds of corruption, abuse of power and gutting democratic institutions.
So far the protests have been peaceful, compared with the military interventions and bloodshed that used to bedevil Thai politics. But its democracy is moving into uncharted political waters because opposition parties are vowing to boycott an election Thaksin called for April 2.
In the Philippines, fear is mounting that a campaign to destabilize President Gloria Arroyo is fraying the fabric of democracy as she cracks down on opponents suspected of plotting to overthrow her government.
Arroyo declared a state of emergency last week to quash the alleged plot, and capital charges have been filed against 16 suspects. The emergency, which allowed arrests without warrants and intervention of the military, was lifted on Friday.
Ironically, Arroyo is facing the same array of "people power" and political opposition that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos exactly 20 years ago and opened the road to democracy.
Overall, representative government has made some impressive gains in Asia since the end of the Cold War, most notably Taiwan and South Korea. Thailand and the Philippines would have counted too, but given their latest setbacks, their region has fallen on the global democracy charts.
Southeast Asia includes two of the world's five communist states, Vietnam and Laos; one of its longest-running military dictatorships, Myanmar; two countries where a single party has held power for decades, Singapore and Malaysia. Cambodia, still recovering from the genocidal Khmer Rouge era, has a democracy of sorts, but it's fragile and messy.
Thailand's media, once among Asia's freest, have been severely curbed under Thaksin, who won the last elections in 2005 by a landslide. In the Philippines, more journalists have been killed since 2000 than in any other country, including Iraq, a report by the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said last year.
Analysts cite a number of reasons for democracy's rocky road, including corruption, cronyism, massive vote-buying and patronage systems built on powerful leaders rather than ideals.
"Cursed is this Kingdom and its people who pretend to be naive and think that elections in this country are or ever could be free and fair," The Nation, a Thai English-language newspaper, lamented last week.
Rather than western democratic models, some Southeast Asian leaders have looked to China and Singapore, which put economic advancement ahead of civil rights.
The U.S. focus on fighting terrorism, rather than vigorously promoting human rights and transparent governance, may also have slowed progress.
"If (Southeast Asian leaders) are cornered and questioned they say, 'Ye who live in glass houses can't throw stones. You're doing the same things you allege we're doing and criticizing us for it. Get off our backs.' So it isn't helping the U.S. position," says James Klein, who heads the Thailand and Laos offices of the Asia Foundation, a nonprofit organization that fosters reform.
The surprise performer is Indonesia. The nation of 210 million shook off 32 years of military dictatorship in 1998 and has steadily built up its democratic structures while weathering the devastating 2004 tsunami and a series of terrorist attacks by Muslim militants.
As for Thailand, not everyone is pessimistic about its long-term prospects.
While describing some of its democratic procedures as "theatrical ceremony," Klein says:
"I think we are moving slowly forward. I think Thaksin is a blip in a forward movement."
Heike Loschmann of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a German group that promotes democracy in the region, says the grass roots are forging increasingly effective ways to be heard.
"People are enduring and pragmatic in their fight," he said. "But there continues to be institutional failure to implement what is on paper."


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