Thailand got impatient with its prime minister and tore the rule book up. It’s not alone. Considering the region is blessed with stunning economic growth, stable borders, birth rates largely under control and a virtuous circle of material and consumerist advancement that has enriched the lives of most of its citizens, Asia’s tiger democracies are suddenly looking astonishingly unruly. George Bush, take note: democracy is under almost as much fire in Southeast Asia as it is in the Middle East.

All of these countries are putative parliamentary or presidential democracies and have been for decades, most of them with ornate parliamentary or legislative halls and the trappings of civilised governments. They have fully empowered legislatures and extensive court systems and most have free and aggressive press establishments.

But, looking across the span of these economies, it is important to note that democracy depends on more than the paper on which constitutions are written. It takes generations to inculcate the idea that people need to accept that there are rules to the game and that constitutional practices be followed.

Here’s a list of other Asian democracies that are having trouble playing by the rules:

  • Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has survived two impeachment attempts, several coup plots and thousands of people in the streets over the last 15 months in the wake of allegations she had conspired with a senior elections official to rig the May 2004 Presidential elections. In the wake of the successful coup in Thailand, military leaders found it necessary to release statements affirming their loyalty to the beleaguered president. Her term ends in 2010.
  • Taiwanese President Chen Sui-bian has faced a continuing series of rallies that have drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters charging him, members of his family and his administration with corruption. In a special session of Parliament n May, opposition members of parliament launched a series of unsuccessful moves to attempt to impeach him. Since that time, Chen has faced mounting anger over a series of scandals including the arrest of his son-in-law on insider trading allegations. On 1 June, he was forced to cede some of his powers to the prime minister to attempt to deflect the political crisis. On 9 September, political opponents vowed to take to the streets until they drive him from office.
  • In Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is under unremitting attack from Mahathir Mohamad, the man he succeeded, on a wide variety of charges ranging from corruption to cancelling some of the former prime minister’s cherished projects. On the other side, Anwar Ibrahim, a onetime Mahathir favourite jailed on spurious corruption and sexual abuse charges, has announced his intention to oppose Badawi despite the fact that Badawi had freed him from prison after Mahathir left office.
  • On March 12, 2004, President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea was impeached in a tumultuous session of the National Assembly that featured fistfights, candlelight vigils and student rallies, setting off a constitutional crisis that didn’t end until the Constitutional Court struck down the impeachment two months later, which critics said was nothing more than an attempt by opponents to neutralise his attempts at rapprochement with North Korea. There have been less publicised but equally problematic episodes of unrest in Nepal, where protesters and increasingly powerful Maoist guerrillas forced King Gyanendra to cede power in April as demonstrations spread from Kathmandu to poorer rural cities.
  • In Bangladesh, a seemingly unending matricidal war has gone on for decades between the Bangladesh Nationalist Party headed by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, and the opposition Awami League headed by former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Even little Hong Kong, a part of the decidedly undemocratic China, has seen mass protests calling for the right to elect their government’s leader.

Read more in The Asia Sentinel.

Peter Fray

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