The Death of a King

Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king of Thailand, visits the Netherlands, October 24, 196
Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king of Thailand, visits the Netherlands, October 24, 1960 (Nationaal Archief)

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej had a long run: from 1946 until today, his living memory involved Japanese occupation, cold warriors burning Vietnam, the self-immolation of Cambodia, the shunning and decades-later rehabilitation of Myanmar and the rise of China.

His death leaves many questions for Thai politics, not the least of which is what to do with the widely disliked crown prince, heir apparent to the throne.

But it also reveals the slow grind down of monarchy as a system, as Thais contemplate — quietly for now — whether they even need a king at all. Read more “The Death of a King”

Thai Coup Leader: Return to Democracy Will Take Year

Thailand’s army and coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha appealed for patience from the country’s population and its allies in a speech late Friday night, saying the return to democracy would take about one year.

Prayuth, who ousted the civilian government last week to end six months of deadlock between supporters and opponents of the Pheu Thai party, said a temporary constitution would be drawn up and an interim cabinet installed after three months of “reconciliation”. Read more “Thai Coup Leader: Return to Democracy Will Take Year”

Thai Army Stages Coup After Months of Political Unrest

Thailand’s army took control of the government in a coup on Thursday, two days after declaring martial law.

In a television statement, the country’s army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, said talks between rival political factions to find a solution to six months of deadlock had failed, requiring the military to restore order and push through necessary reforms.

“In order for the situation to return to normal quickly and for society to love and be at peace again … and to reform the structure of the political, economic and social structure, the military needs to take control of power,” he said.

Soldiers ordered cabinet ministers to report to an army base in the north of Bangkok, the capital, by the end of the day and imposed a curfew.

The army’s intervention came two weeks after the country’s supreme court forced Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai party to step down over her dismissal of her national-security chief, who was a supporter of the opposition party, three years ago. Read more “Thai Army Stages Coup After Months of Political Unrest”

Thai Supreme Court Ousts Prime Minister Shinawatra

Yingluck Shinawatra’s prime ministership abruptly ended on Wednesday when Thailand’s Constitutional Court ordered her and several of her cabinet ministers to step down. The court ruled that it had been unconstitutional for her to replace her national-security chief three years ago.

The decision has the potential to spark more violence witnessed over the last several months as deep economic and political divisions roil Thailand resulting in paralysis in government. Read more “Thai Supreme Court Ousts Prime Minister Shinawatra”

Why Ukraine, Thailand Are Not Venezuela

Nicolás Maduro
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro delivers a speech (Palacio de Miraflores/Miguel Angulo)

After the “color revolutions,” the European “indignados,” “Occupy Wall Street” and the “Arab Spring,” pundits are again trying to make sense of a wave of public demonstrations around the world. Parallels have been drawn between the protests in Thailand, Ukraine and Venezuela but only a superficial analysis could conclude that these are equivalent.

The advent of new social media and the easier ability for unorganized demonstrators to mobilize themselves has facilitated the emergence of such phenomena. However, the lack of political coherence often implies an inherent anarchic and unsubstantial character to such demonstrations. If all these protests have something in common, it is that they largely failed to achieve any meaningful change. The Arab Spring did shake things up but it is difficult to see how overthrowing the old regimes has managed to improve living conditions in the Middle East and North Africa.

That said, in 2014, Venezuela’s is probably the most consistent and rational of the protests and it differs starkly from realities in Bangkok and Kiev when it comes to legitimate grievances as well as methodology. Read more “Why Ukraine, Thailand Are Not Venezuela”

Snap Elections Fail to Put Thailand’s Political Crisis to Rest

Despite snap elections on Sunday, Thailand’s two largest political forces remain at a stalemate and with class and ethnic divisions deepening, tensions remain high across the country.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s ruling Pheu Thai party was almost guaranteed to win a majority with the opposition Democrats boycotting the vote. They insist on constitutional reforms before participating in any more elections, knowing that otherwise Pheu Thai, which is most popular in the rural north of the country, will stay in power.

Opposition protesters have occupied large parts of Bangkok, the capital, surrounding key government buildings and virtually shutting down the government. Last week, thousands of police forces were deployed in and around Bangkok and a state of emergency was declared after violence had prevented some early voting. Read more “Snap Elections Fail to Put Thailand’s Political Crisis to Rest”

Between Illiberal Democrats and Undemocratic Liberals

A demonstration against Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev, December 2, 2013
A demonstration against Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev, December 2, 2013 (Alexandra Gnatoush)

The political upheavals in Egypt, Thailand, Turkey and Ukraine share a striking commonality which suggests that democracy is not enough to Westernize these countries.

In all four, a liberal minority has agitated against a majoritarian government that, unlike majority governments in Europe, is primarily concerned with advancing the interests of its own supporters.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, freely elected after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, was seen as looking only after its own kind, disregarding the mounting concerns of the nation’s Christians, secular Muslims and women. The dissatisfied, and sometimes terrified, minority became a majority last year, giving the military a mandate to topple the Islamists. An overwhelming majority of Egyptians has since approved a constitutional rewrite that could pave the way for the army to return to power.

Opponents of Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was elected in 2009 after her brother Thaksin was exiled, would rather like the same to happen in their country. They intend to boycott an election this year, knowing that the majority of Thai voters, especially in the poorer north of the country, will reelect the Shinawatras.

An army coup is less likely in Turkey where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is similarly popular in the least developed parts of his country. Minority Alevis and Kurds as well as young and urban voters have grown wary of his increasingly authoritarian style of government yet Erdoğan could very well defy his own party’s rules on term limits and stand for reelection again in 2015 — and win.

Ukraine’s opposition accuses President Viktor Yanukovich of authoritarian behavior in the way he suppresses demonstrations against his government’s deepening of ties with Russia instead of Europe. In the west of the country, many urban, middle-class Ukrainians had hoped their country would sign an association agreement with the European Union last year. Yanukovich reneged on the deal and turned to his former Soviet master for financial support. Yet he still seems to enjoy the backing of the majority of Ukrainians, especially in the east of the country which is home to some eight million ethnic Russians.

The Egyptians who opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, the Thais who oppose the Shinawatras, the Turks who oppose Erdoğan and the Ukrainians who oppose Yanukovich tend to be urban, better paid and altogether more worldly than the majority of their compatriots. Their values are relatively more liberal, more Western, and can be more important to them than democracy — exposing a distinction between the two that many Westerners don’t have to make. Indeed, the political divide in these countries risks being one between illiberal democrats and undemocratic liberals. Between the two, who should the West support?

The European Union and the United States promote democracy abroad, assuming that democratic regimes are inherently more stable and likely to cooperate with each other on multilateral issues. In the four countries discussed here at least, that has proven to be not the case.

Democracy in Egypt brought to power a movement that not only had fundamentally different values from the West but was less of a stalwart ally than Mubarak had been.

When Turkey’s generals ruled the country, they were similarly more likely to line up behind the United States than Erdoğan has done. He also soured relations with Israel, the only democracy in the proper Western sense in the Middle East, calling into question the notion that democracies are always natural allies.

In Thailand and Ukraine, democracy has privileged one group over another — conservative and mostly rural voters from the north and east of the two countries respectively against middle and upper class voters from the cities in the south and west. It has not fostered a culture of consensus, as exists in Western Europe. It has caused confrontation instead.

Whichever group happens to be in power in Bangkok matters little to the West. Thailand is likely to ally with the United States in East Asia in either case. But the outcome of the power struggles in Egypt and Ukraine are relevant to Europe and the United States.

Had the Muslim Brotherhood remained in control of Egypt, the country could have gone on to pursue a less vigorous anti-terrorist policy and broken the axis of American allies in the region. The army, by contrast, seeks to undermine Hamas’ legitimacy in Gaza and is backed Saudi Arabia an the other Arab Gulf states. The United States should have no desire whatsoever to encourage an Islamist resurgence in Egypt.

Even if Ukraine’s association with the European Union could have cost the bloc whereas now Russia has had to throw the country a lifeline with $15 billion in credits, its longer term goal of expanding the European sphere of influence and decreasing its dependence on Russian natural gas has been damaged by Yanukovich’s snub. Why should European countries still support democracy in Ukraine when it produces a government that is hostile to them? Certainly Russia wouldn’t if it were the other way around.

The focus on democracy can thus harm the Western interest. European countries and the United States should care a little less about helping organize elections wherever they can and pay more attention to people who share their values — who are more likely to share their interests as well.

Thai Government Destabilized by Protests, Border Dispute

Thailand’s benchmark equity index fell for a third day in a row this week, closing down 2.06 percent to 1,375.86 on Thursday and reaching an eleven week low. The country is tense with thousands of protesters in Bangkok, the capital, and elsewhere around the country, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra following the introduction of an amnesty bill.

In addition, an ancient land dispute has relations with Cambodia simmering again. With parliament in gridlock, Thailand’s internal and external political conflicts are at risk of overheating and threatening the stability of Shinawatra’s government only two years after she was elected. Read more “Thai Government Destabilized by Protests, Border Dispute”

Laos’ Hydropower Boom Attracts Regional Attention

The recent decision by the government of Laos to green light the long delayed construction of the massive Xayaburi Dam made headlines across the world. Most analysts and commentators agree the move is controversial, as the dam will likely have significant negative environmental effects within Laos as well as in Cambodia and Vietnam, which lie further down the Mekong.

It is believed that the small Southeast Asian country is planning to build up to seventy hydroelectric dams along the Mekong River and its tributaries, an increase from the previous but already significant estimate of 55. This construction boom will have wider repercussions than extensive environmental damage. It has the potential to alter the geopolitical balance in Southeast Asia.

Even though the Laotian economy has been growing steadily over recent years, the country remains one of the most underdeveloped in Asia. Its gross domestic product per capita (at purchasing power parity) in 2011 was $2,700 and according to World Bank data only 71 percent of the country’s population had access to electricity in 2010. Read more “Laos’ Hydropower Boom Attracts Regional Attention”