There’s been a coup in Thailand; as someone who has a passing interest in democratic consolidation and Asian politics (whose sum knowledge of Thai politics is due to having a dad who served there during the 70s and a professor in grad school who decided to focus on southeast Asian politics after several decades studying American politics), I don’t have any particular insight to add here beyond “countries with legacies of authoritarian rule typically have difficulty adopting democratic norms”—particularly since my job title doesn’t have the phrase “comparative politics” in it.
Matthew Shugart does have the fancy title and some more meaningful comments, as do James Joyner and Dan Drezner.
Robert Tagorda is deeply concerned about events surrounding embattled Philippine leader Gloria Macapagal Arroyo:
I find Arroyo’s actions utterly problematic, and they likely warrant removal. But, on a more fundamental level, I’m once again disturbed with the way that the entire country is handling the scandal. Mass demonstrations, military pronouncements, church declarations—every major step is being taken outside the realm of the constitution.
The Philippines have had a relatively turbulent history of extraconstitutional turnovers in power, as the Washington Post account makes clear:
So far, street demonstrations called by opposition parties have failed to draw crowds of the size that have toppled two Philippine presidents. Peaceful protests brought Aquino to power in 1986. A similar “People Power” movement hoisted Arroyo, then vice president, into the top spot four years ago to replace President Joseph Estrada, who was facing impeachment on graft charges.
While most unbiased observers would agree that the first “EDSA Revolution” that brought down the Marcos regime in 1986 was a legitimate response in the face of an authoritarian regime, two successive transfers of power outside the ordinary democratic process would not be good for building Philippine democracy—even if, as seems to be the case, the presidents being toppled are corrupt.
The government of Bangladesh has stopped women from taking part in a swimming competition after a radical Islamic group threatened to bring the district around Chandpur to a halt with protests.
And in Pakistan, a man has been sentenced to life in prison for blasphemy.
The Washington Post editorial board rightly castigates both Bush and Kerry for their failure to speak publically about the need for a real democratic transition in Pakistan; coupled with events in Russia and the (quite possibly invented-from-thin-air by Robert Novak) Iraq withdrawal trial balloon, it’s not been a great week for democracy.
The BBC had an interesting story today on Islam in the Ningxia province, “the heartland of Islam in China.” Chinese Islam is, according to the story, more progressive than the variety found in the Middle East. There are even a few female imams.
Beijing's tight control over religious practice means Chinese Muslims have been isolated from trends sweeping through the rest of the Islamic world.
According to Dr Khaled Abou el Fadl from the University of California in Los Angeles, that means that ancient traditions like female jurists – which have been stamped out elsewhere – have been able to continue in China.
“The Wahhabi and Salafis have not been able to penetrate areas like China and establish their puritanical creed there,” said Dr Khaled Abou el Fadl.
Conrad is busily planning a takeover of the Philippines. As someone who’s taken a mild interest in Philippine politics over the years, I can authoritatively say he’s probably got a better plan to solve the country’s problems than the extant administration.
Having said that, I’m less willing to blame the voters than some commentators—Philippine politics somehow manages to combine the worst traits of Huey Long, Richard Daley, and E.H. Crump without producing any of the benefits one typically finds in a machine-politics regime, and until that is sorted out I’m not sure the voters will make that much difference.
Saparmurat Niyazov, the megalomanical dictator of Turkmenistan, "has ordered the construction of a palace made of ice in the heart of his desert country, one of the hottest on earth."
Perhaps he fancies himself as Kubla Khan from the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice!
UPDATE: Great minds think alike.
Robert Garcia Tagorda helpfully notes the geographic illiteracy of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, who somehow managed to include the Philippines and Thailand among a list of countries aiding and abetting terrorists in one of those stupid “fundraising polls” that are included in letters soliciting donors.
Robert’s right: the only fitting word is “idiotic.” Especially when you consider that, as Conrad of The Gweilo Diaries points out, the Philippine government just broke up a major terrorist plot involving Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda affiliate group.
I was sort-of thinking in the back of my mind that if incoming Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero wanted to prove he was serious about terrorism, he’d reassign those troops he’s talking about removing from Iraq to Afghanistan. As Edward of Obsidian Wings notes, that’s pretty much what he plans to do. Good for him.
Now, if he’d actually been smart enough to announce this proposal at the time he was talking about withdrawing troops from Iraq, he might have been spared the blistering treatment he got from this side of the pond.
Eric Lindholm and Wind Rider think the results of Malaysia’s latest election are cause for celebration and a repudiation of fundamentalist Islam by that country’s voters. While undoubtably the incoming National Front coalition government (led by the UMNO) of Abdullah Badawi will continue to pay lip service to western governments’ fight against Islamic terror, I would be most cautious in characterizing any electoral outcome in Malaysia as reflecting popular opinion—graft, patronage, corruption, gerrymandering, and other undemocratic ills are rife in Malaysian politics, and while the departure of Badawi’s predecessor, the vile Mahathir Mohammed, from the public scene is welcome, it is unlikely that his hands are very far from the levers of power in Kuala Lampur.
For more background on Malaysia’s electoral process, I strongly recommend The Economist’s coverage ($). According to the piece, the UMNO wasn’t exactly shy about its religious credentials during the campaign:
At campaign rallies around the state [of Kedah, which borders Thailand in the northwest part of the country], leaders from both parties [UMNO and the Islamic PAS] harp on about the Koran and utter incantations in Arabic. Mr Badawi's father was a respected religious scholar, and he himself studied Islam at university. Compared to his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, who took it upon himself to interpret the true meaning of the faith despite a relatively secular upbringing, Mr Badawi is the very image of learned and measured piety.
And, the election was essentially rigged from the get go:
The electoral rules are also heavily stacked in the National Front's favour. Malaysia's first-past-the-post system translates small margins of victory into big parliamentary majorities. The eight-day campaign period has left the opposition with almost no time to raise its profile with the electorate. The media is unashamedly biased, with adulation of the ruling party interrupted only by dismissive digs at the opposition. The Election Commission, too, has redrawn districts in a manner that favours UMNO. In Kedah, for example, it helpfully moved an area that UMNO had won by over 5,000 votes in 1999 into a constituency that PAS had won by 3,000 votes. Of 26 new parliamentary seats, not one was awarded to Kedah, Kelantan or Terengganu, the states where PAS is strongest. The government, it seems, has more influence than god, even in a god-fearing state like Kedah.
Of course, if your primary concern isn’t democracy but global government “support” for the War on Terror, I guess you could see this as good news.
This is my entry in today’s Beltway Traffic Jam.
Update: Glenn Reynolds is also (unjustly) enthused about the results.
Matt Stinson looks at the importance of branding, drawing from his ongoing experiences in China. He also leaves off with this disturbing thought:
In the future, China will be the biggest market for PBR. This scares me more than anything else I’ve seen here.
Hey, it could be worse. It could be Schlitz…
Matt Stinson finally stops teasing us and announces his big plans for the new year. Très cool.
Matthew Stinson observes that financier and newfound lefty darling George Soros only seems to have a problem with regime change when he isn’t instigating it personally, at least according to Wednesday’s edition of Canada’s Globe and Mail.
On the other hand, Mark A.R. Kleiman believes Putin orchestrated the whole business in Georgia, with an assist from Washington.
Conrad sees ominous signs in the latest sabre-rattling exercise by the Chinese government toward Taiwan (also noted by InstaPundit). Quoth Conrad:
I do, however, sense a significant change in tone recently in China’s comments regarding Taiwan. China’s bungling of the one country, two systems policy in Hong Kong have virtually eliminated whatever slim chance there was of a peaceful reunification while the CCP remains in power. Taiwan is now taking steps it believes will ensure its permanant independance and Beijing, having deceided to prop up its corrupt and despotic rule with juvenile patriotic appeals, realizes that the loss of Taiwan means the fall of the government.
A year ago, I’d have said that the chances of armed conflict between Taiwan and China were negligable. All the parties have too much to lose. Today, I’d rate the likelyhood at something approaching 50-50. If that happens, US involvement is all but a certainty. The US needs to make that final point crystal clear to Beijing.
Thursday’s China Post has the latest news on the story.
Conrad and Pieter at PeakTalk both make their readers aware of the Indonesian practice of gijzeling, which is apparently often used by Indonesian officials to shake down foreigners. As Pieter points out, not only is gijzeling a Dutch term (which literally means “hostage taking”); it also has its roots in Dutch law. As Pieter writes:
Had this practice not been part of the legal infrastructure that the Dutch left behind in Indonesia, I have little doubt that somehow Indonesian authorities would at some point have discovered this technique of generating additional revenue. However, you can bet your bottom dollar that if ever the country comes under serious international criticism over this practice it will happily point to the old colonial master that introduced the practice in the first place.
It is not just Indonesia that has found this practice, of borrowing from past colonial laws, effective; the neighboring Malaysian government’s notorious Internal Security Act is a direct decendent of British anti-sedition laws enacted under colonial rule to combat communist insurgencies, as are Singapore’s similar internal security laws. In response to criticism, both governments have regularly pointed out that Britain had imposed equally draconian legislation in the past; they have also noted laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act that were enacted by Britain to combat the IRA and “loyalist” terrorist groups in Northern Ireland.
I don’t know if there’s an obvious lesson to be drawn from this pattern. To echo Pieter, authoritarian regimes generally don’t need any help figuring out ways cracking down on disfavored groups. But to the extent vague and open-ended laws are used in democracies to crack down on terrorist groups, authoritarian states can point to those laws to justify similar provisions—even if, in practice, they are targeted at their nonviolent political opponents rather than terrorists.