Yearning for Democracy: Thailand and Burma

This summer I had the rare opportunity to visit Thailand and Burma, both of which have recently made the news for their tumultuous political situations. At first glance the situation in these countries appears bleak, and in many ways it is. Thailand shifted from a corrupt but marginally democratic government to a military-backed civilian government whose motives and political values are still unclear. Burma’s entrenched military junta brutally suppresses dissent and free speech, most recently whisking away 1,000 peacefully protesting monks, many of whom are now feared dead. Perhaps there is a silver lining, however, in the midst of all of this turmoil and bloodshed. Along with the fascinating temples, ancient cities, and thriving cultures I saw, I also witnessed tangible undercurrents of rising democratic yearning amongst the people of these two countries.

Thailand’s political status is unclear even to its own citizens. Over the past year Thailand has seen a coup replace the corrupt government of Thaksin Shinawatra with a potentially repressive military-backed civilian government. Thaksin was a billionaire media mogul who was popular amongst the rural poor because of his populist policies, Thai nationalism, and dislike of elites. While his tenure was marked by a good response to the 2005 Tsunami, and a steadily growing economy, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch complained that Thaksin’s handling of a counterinsurgency against drug smugglers and guerrillas in the south of the country was rife with human rights abuses and unnecessarily high death tolls. Thaksin began to lose public support when he sold the family-owned telecommunications company, Shin Corp, with windfall tax free profits. After the coup, the new government froze his assets and Thaksin has ever since been attempting to overturn these punitive measures in court. Although addressing government transgression through the judicial system is commonplace in the United States, it is an unprecedented and reassuring development in Thailand.

While 57.8% of voters supported the coup’s newly-drafted constitution in an August referendum, the vote was largely seen as a mixed victory for the new government. The document is designed to prevent the corruption that peaked during Thaksin’s government, but opponents fear that it weakens elected politicians and curtails progress made in the ’97 Constitution. It is uncertain whether the new military-backed government will relinquish control after the upcoming December elections.

The current political process illuminates the obstacles still facing a democratic Thailand. A deeper look into the process, however, reveals major strides forward for the Thai people. This is the first of the 17 constitutions on which the Thai people were allowed to vote. While I was in Thailand, the Bangkok Post and The Nation newspapers debated the advantages and disadvantages of the constitution in numerous op-ed pieces. Voters publicly campaigned in favor of or against it, reflecting a desire to move on to the scheduled December elections. The Thai people have had a greater say in the drafting and approval of this constitution then ever before.

Burma’s political status, on the other hand, is marred to a much greater degree by the retrenchment of military power and a false facade of democracy. Recently, massive protests led by the country’s highly respected Buddhist monks have ended with a vicious government crackdown. Reports of public beatings, ransacked monasteries, missing people, and pictures of dead and bloodied monks have streamed through international news. Although in 1988 similar protests were violently suppressed, this round indicates that democratic sentiments have grown despite government counter-efforts. While the 1988 protests were led by politically-active democracy advocates, this time the revered Buddhist monks took center stage and used holy religious sites like the Shwedagon in Rangoon as rallying points. This delayed the eventual government crackdown, as the government feared a public backlash from attacking the monks of this pious country. Secondly, new technologies played a major roll in spreading information and illuminating the grave situation to the international community. People within Burma used the Internet and cell phones to send updates, photos, and videos to the outside world before the government imposed a communications blackout on the country.

The international response to the bloodshed in Burma has been varied, but in the end ineffectual. The United States and the United Kingdom strengthened the sanctions already in place and pushed for action in the U.N. Security Council. Many of Burma’s neighbors called for restraint, but stopped at that. China is Burma’s biggest ally and most ardent supporter. In many respects, Burma has been China’s protégé, sharing political milestones such as dropping direct socialist rule in the 80’s and following through with subsequent economic reform. With the upcoming 2008 Olympics, China has called for restraint from Burma, but it vetoed any strong action by the Security Council. Some suggest that China’s complaints stem from the messy PR that the crackdown generated, and not the crackdown itself.

It is encouraging to see that after nineteen years of brutal suppression, Burma’s desire for democracy has not been extinguished. However, the international community must provide greater support if any real progress it to be made. In the meantime, the clash between the population’s stubborn democratic spirit and the government’s repression will only cause more innocent people to die.

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