Christmas and New Year’s holiday travel took me to three places in Asia where people were on the streets protesting about democracy — but within different contexts, and with differing complaints and expectations. It shows how in the three decades since I’ve reporting on Southeast Asia and China, democracy in the region remains very much a work in progress.
In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party were returned to power after elections last July that the opposition claims were rigged, and there have been regular protests ever since demanding Asia’s longest-serving premier finally step down. The opposition protests were occurring alongside separate demonstrations by striking garment factory workers demanding a doubling of their current $80 monthly wage (the government had offered an immediate raise to $95 a month, and a gradual increase to $160 over several years).
The Cambodian protests turned violent just a few days after I left, when police opened fire on garment factory protesters, killing at least three (and perhaps more, as protesters claim) on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
In Thailand, meanwhile, the capital, Bangkok, was girding for new violence following a New Year’s hiatus, as protesters trying to topple the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra returned to the streets. The Bangkok protesters are a mixture of middle-class professionals, urbanites, royalists and supporters of the opposition Democratic Party, who see Yingluck as nothing more than a shill for her older brother, the deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has his base among Thailand’s rural poor, mostly from the populous Northeast.
Despite the surface similarity of the upheaval in the two neighboring countries — and the sight of security forces opening fire on demonstrators — the difference between Cambodia and Thailand is crucial. In Thailand, Yingluck and her party were democratically elected in 2011 in elections generally seen as fair and reflecting the will of a majority of Thais. In Cambodia, Hun Sen probably did steal power once again through vote-rigging and intimidation. It’s a technique he’s been using to hold on to office since he used the threat of violence and secession to muscle his way into the position of “co-prime minister” after losing the country’s U.N.-sponsored multi-party elections in 1993.
Hun Sen spent four years, from 1993 to 1997, in a power-sharing arrangement with the royalist party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the true winner of the internationally-organized elections that officially ended Cambodia’s two decades of civil war, genocide and occupation by Vietnam. Then in the year before fresh elections, which Hun Sen was poised to lose again, he staged a bloody coup, sending Ranariddh and most of his political opponents into exile. Hun Sen then became Cambodia’s undisputed strongman — using violence and intimidation in the lead up to election time to retain his grip.
I covered Hun Sen’s 1997 coup and Cambodia’s July 1998 elections, including the crucial run-up period. I reported how opposition campaign workers were being assassinated, how the registration process was being manipulated, and how Hun Sen was using his control of the broadcast media to insure that opposing candidates were largely blocked from any coverage. In short, the election was a violent mess. But that didn’t stop the American and other international election observers from declaring that farce a “miracle on the Mekong” — all so the aid spigots could be quickly turned back on.
Hun Sen appeared to take a key lesson from that debacle; he could use the facade of elections to legitimize his strong-arm rule, and the international community, for the most part, would just look the other way. But this year, Cambodians are showing that they will now be so easily cowed.
Thailand is in many ways the opposite story. In 1997, following the Asian economic crisis that hit Thailand particularly hard, Thais — fed up with incompetent, corrupt governments — took to the streets in huge numbers, and toppled the deeply unpopular prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a former Army commander. To clean up their political system, Thais opted for a new “reform constitution” that promised to reduce corruption, increase accountability, and establish minimum educational standards for politicians in a bid to break the power of rural power-brokers. The first beneficiary of Thailand’s new democracy was the very decent and competent Democratic Party leader Chuan Leekpai, who became prime minister (and who I spoke with on my reporting trips to Bangkok).
The problem in Thailand now is that many of those Bangkok middle class professionals and members of the urban elite who clamored for more democracy then have now suddenly decided they don’t like one of the central precepts of a democratic system; majority rule. They particularly don’t like it because poor, rural Thais from the Northeast constitute the majority, and the poor love Thaksin, and his sister Yingluck, for instituting populous policies that seem pro-poor, like free health care and micro-credit for farmers.
So the protesters in Bangkok have decided they don’t want democracy after all. What they want is some (still unspecified) system where they, the capital’s elite, can continue to run the country’s political affairs without having to bother with the messiness of elections and majority rule. They can’t win power at the ballot box, because they are out-numbered by the rural and the poor, who adore Thaksin (and by extension his sister). So they are openly calling for — begging for – a military coup, and a cancellation of planned February elections that Thaksin and Yingluck’s party appears certain to win yet again.
This turmoil in Southeast Asia, I think, has a spillover effect to the other place I visited this holiday period where people were also on the streets on New Year’s Day protesting about democracy; Hong Kong.
I covered Hong Kong for five years as The Washington Post’s bureau chief there from 1995 until 2000, and I witnessed the historic 1997 transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China. The central question Hong Kongers had then, and now, is when will they have the right to vote freely for their own local leader?
The Standing Committee of China’s National Peoples Congress, the country’s rubber stamp legislature, in 2007 declared that Hong Kong in 2017 could have an election for its top political leader, called chief executive, using “universal suffrage,” which generally means one person, one vote. But China’s Communist rulers in Beijing never want to allow an election anywhere on its territory where they don’t already know the outcome in advance. So the question now is not whether Hong Kong will be able to hold an election, but who will be allowed to run? Who will do the vetting of candidates beforehand?
This is important. Iran, for example, holds presidential and parliamentary elections. But the list of candidates allowed to run is vetted and approved beforehand by the powerful Guardian Council, a 12-member body that is supposed to ensure adherence to a strict interpretation of Islam and to the principles of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. The Guardian Council routinely prohibits openly pro-reform candidates from even standing for office.
In Hong Kong, the body playing that role of guardian of the doctrine is a 1,200-member election committee which is stacked with loyalists and apologists for China’s Communist government. Does anyone think China’s version of the Guardian Council would really let outspoken members of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party or critics of China’s human rights policy run for Hong Kong chief executive?
And what conclusions can we draw from these disparate cases?
First, people everywhere, including in Asia, want the right to choose their own leaders through regular democratic elections, and have their votes counted. To suggest otherwise — that somehow Asians prefer benevolent strongmen or paternalistic dictators, like some in the “Asian values” camp often posit — is, to me, pure hooey. And to suggest some people are “not ready” for democracy, or care more about development first — the usual argument of Chinese Communist leaders — is also just hooey.
Second, as Cambodia demonstrates, people know when their votes have not been fairly counted, and they will and do protest.
A third key point; for democracy to mature and take root, the election losers must accept the result and try again next time around. That point was made to me by a Bangkok taxi driver who told me, “Here, they say they believe in democracy. But when they lose, they protest.” And likewise the winners must be magnanimous in victory, reach out to the losing side, and make sure politics does not degenerate into a zero-sum game.
And fourth, elections are about more than what happens on voting day. Elections are won, lost or stolen by what happens in the months and years preceding. The intimidation that happens well beforehand is more important than any that comes on election day itself. And the rules — and the people who write the rules — can often determine the outcome before any vote is cast — which is why the New Year’s Day protesters in Hong Kong are so adamant in demanding in advance that Beijing set the rules to allow unfettered participation in the next election for chief executive.
Finally, the U.S. and the Western countries that care about democracy must be adamant and consistent in supporting it at all costs, even when we don’t like the result, and must be consistent in condemning military coups and rejecting rigged results and farcical imitations of democracy. To do less undermines our principles and makes our stated support for democracy ring hollow.
I’ll have more to say about democracy, “Asian values” and China’s political development in future posts.