Asia's Fickle Elites

This week's scenes from Bangkok resembled a throwback to another era: tanks manning city crossroads, bland patriotic music on television, a uniformed general promising to "improve" the political system. All this while the nation's elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was halfway across the globe preparing to address the United Nations General Assembly.

Thaksin's ouster by the clumsily named Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy, a group of army officers backed tacitly by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, comes as a jolt for democracy in Southeast Asia.

With a robust economy, feisty press, regular elections and an army that hadn't meddled directly in politics for 14 years, Thailand appeared to be the country in the region most likely to evolve into a full-fledged modern democracy. Instead, the coup -- redolent of Islamabad in 1999 and Manila two years later -- reminds us that though Asian elites often pay lip service to democracy, they aren't always willing to live with its consequences.

For the past five years, those consequences for Thailand have been personified by Thaksin, the folksy cop-turned-billionaire telecoms tycoon who is simultaneously the country's most popular and most polarizing politician.

In 2001, Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party surged to power with a populist message aimed at the country's rural poor. Thaksin went on to become the first elected Thai prime minister to serve a full term and the first to win a second. In April, he drew 16 million votes -- 61 percent of those cast -- in an election marred by an opposition boycott and eventually annulled by the courts. The near certainty that he would win decisively again in elections scheduled for November appears to have triggered the coup.

The Thaksin phenomenon goes to the heart of the tension between elites and masses in poor countries. The deposed leader's formula of debt forgiveness, village development and low cost health care won him an electorally impregnable following. But at the same time, he alienated Bangkok's elites with his crude attempts to use advertising and defamation suits to cow the media, and his effort to pack the army and government with cronies.

For many, the final straw on the proverbial camel's back came earlier this year when Thaksin's relatives engineered a tax-free $1.9 billion sale to Singaporean investors of his telecommunications firm, Shin Corp. An endless cycle of protests began that ended in the events of the past week.

Sadanand Dhume, a former correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review and The Asian Wall Street Journal, is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society.

Of course, it's hard to be entirely sympathetic to Thaksin, a politician who, it seemed, never encountered a democratic institution he didn't try to subvert.

And it's true that the alternatives in poor countries are often grim. In the rougher parts of firmly democratic India, for example, it's sometimes hard to distinguish the local legislature from the local prison. Yet, if Thaksin sullied the spirit of democracy, his opponents -- the new ruling council's promise to hold fresh elections within 12 months, notwithstanding -- appear willing to bury it altogether. By refusing to abide by the people's verdict, they send the message that the game of democracy is only worth playing if they are on the winning side.

If recent Asian history shows one thing, it's that attempts to save democracy by uprooting it don't work.

Gen. Musharraf's coup, in 1999, was initially welcomed by Pakistanis tired of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's (another-tycoon-turned politician) greed and mismanagement. In Manila two years later, the Georgetown-educated Gloria Arroyo rallied "people power" -- in fact, a powerful coalition of generals, priests, judges and businessmen -- to oust the louche and lecherous (but wildly popular) Joseph Estrada. In both cases, the marginal gains in quality of governance have not been worth the long-term price of political retardation.

For democracy to mature in Asia, elites will have to accept that, in the long term, the game is worth playing, even if it means that, in the short term, you lose. How widely this lesson is internalized by generals, media barons and urban intellectuals across the region will determine whether Tuesday's coup is merely a blip or a sign that, in Southeast Asia, as in the Middle East, democracy will likely remain a delicate transplant for the foreseeable future.

Sadanand Dhume, a former correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review and The Asian Wall Street Journal, is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society.