Friday, September 22, 2006

Southeast Asia, Democracy, and Corruption

This article from Asia Times really get at the heart of the Thailand issue--corruption. There is an absurd belief in some parts of the world that the people of southeast Asia don't have an interest in democracy. Leaders such as Mahathir in Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore have in fact used these arguments to their own advantage, deflecting criticism from international human-rights organizations by falling back on these stereotypes. Everyone wants to control their own fate and have a government that is responsible to their needs. Under certain circumstances though, democracies as they exist in a given country and at a given time sometimes do not provide this. People turn to the military, not because they don't appreciate what democracy brings them but because they feel order and stability slipping from their grasp and it scares them.

The problem in Asia is not that people don't like democracy, it's the pressures of corruption on democratically elected regimes. Once you get into power, you are expected to use that power to enrich yourself and your family. Some leaders do this a little bit, some go overboard. Thaksin went overboard. Filipino leaders such as Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo have gone overboard. This frustrates the middle class that hopes for a limited amount of corruption, open business dealings and some level of responsibility in the government. Too often, this never happens in Thailand. This leads to middle-class support for coups and military regimes that at least ensure a sense of order.

What Southeast Asia needs is some real leaders who can appeal to a broad-based part of the population and resist corruption when they get elected. These aren't easy to find. But I have no doubt that they are out there somewhere. It is going to take a series of these kinds of leaders to stablize democracy in the region and make it not only a legitimate political option, but the only acceptable option. Without real leadership and transparent financial practices, it is hard to see democracy becoming the norm in the region.