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During April, the hottest month of the year in Thailand, all activity in Bangkok slows to a molasses pace. With temperatures rising to well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, many residents leave town, heading north or to the islands east and south of the city, and the slow-moving flow of traffic releases a cloud of smog into the steaming air. In mid-April, the entire country shuts down for a week for the Thai New Year, leaving the few people still in the capital marveling at their sudden ability to drive across the city in minutes rather than hours.
But in the spring of 2010, Bangkok was anything but quiet. Tens of thousands of red shirted protesters descended upon the city to protest against the government, which they viewed as illegitimate and unsympathetic to the working class, and to call for a new election. They mostly hailed from poorer villages in the rural northeast, or from working class suburbs of Bangkok. At first, the protests seemed like a village street party. Demonstrators snacked on sticky rice and grilled chicken, and danced in circles to bands playing mor lam, a northeastern Thai music that, with its wailing guitars and plaintive, yodeling vocals, resembles an Asian version of Hank Williams. Amid a rollicking, almost joyous atmosphere, over 100,000 red shirts soon gathered around a makeshift stage in central Bangkok to demand the resignation of the government.
Within weeks, however, the demonstrations turned violent, leading to the worst bloodshed in Bangkok in two decades. On April 10, some demonstrators fired on police and launched grenades at the security forces. The troops cracked down hard, sometimes shooting randomly into the crowds. By the end of the day, twenty-four people had been killed.
That was just a warm-up for late May. By that time, the red shirts had been camped out for weeks in the central business district, shutting down commerce and paralyzing traffic. The government and the armed forces, which had rejected the protesters' demands for an immediate election, decided to take a tougher line. Advancing into the red shirts' encampment, heavily armed soldiers created virtual free-fire zones, shooting at anyone who moved and reportedly posting snipers in buildings above the streets to take out red shirts. A prominent general who had joined the red movement was killed by a bullet to the forehead as he stood talking with a reporter from the New York Times. The red shirts battled back, setting fire to the stock exchange, the largest mall in the city, and other symbols of elite privilege. On the evening of May 19, flames engulfed the Bangkok skyline, dwarfing the temples of the old city and the glass-and-steel high rises of the financial district. By the end of May, most of the red shirts had gone home, but the battle had ended at a terrible cost. The clashes had resulted in the killing of over one hundred people, most of them civilians, and the government had declared a state of emergency in most provinces, giving it the equivalent of martial law powers to detain people without having to charge them with committing a crime.
Such violence has become increasingly common in a country that was once among the most stable in Southeast Asia and an example to other developing nations of democratic consolidation. Four years before the red shirt protests, a different group of protesters had launched Thailand into turmoil, gathering on the main green in the old city of Bangkok, near the Grand Palace, with its glittering spires inlaid with tiny gems. Then it was thousands of middle-class urbanites from Bangkok—lawyers, doctors, shopkeepers, and others—demanding the removal of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a charismatic populist, mostly backed by the rural poor, who had been elected by large majorities but was clearly disdainful of democratic institutions.
Dressed in the yellow of Thailand's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the middle-class protesters were led by a group with the Orwellian name People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Like the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) or the old German Democratic Republic, the PAD was neither democratic nor representative of many people. Its platform for change called for reducing the number of elected seats in Parliament, essentially to slash the power of the rural poor, who constitute the majority of Thais. "The middle class—they disdain the rural masses and see them as willing pawns to the corrupt vote buyers," said one former U.S. ambassador to Thailand.
Thaksin had used his power to eviscerate the civil service, silence the media, and allegedly disappear political opponents. He declared a "war on drugs" in which more than two thousand people were killed by the security forces, frequently with gunshots to the back of the head, and often despite the fact that they had no links to narcotics. He also cracked down on dissent. In one horrific incident in October 2004, Thai security forces rounded up hundreds of young men in southern Thailand after demonstrations against the government at a local mosque. The security forces stacked them inside stifling, insufficiently ventilated trucks; eighty-five people died of suffocation. On a daily basis Thaksin spread fear among potential critics. At the offices of the Bangkok Post its tough investigative reporters, who had survived on cheap whiskey and cigarettes through coups, street protests, and wars, were completely dispirited. One editor said they were scared even to touch stories related to Thaksin, for fear the prime minister's cronies would buy the paper and fire them.
Still, Thaksin had been elected twice, and he dominated Thai politics largely because he was the most compelling, organized, and dynamic politician in the country. In a lengthy cable analyzing Thaksin's appeal—and released to the public by Wikileaks—Ralph Boyce, a former U.S. ambassador to Thailand who was no fan of Thaksin's repressive policies, admitted: "Thaksin's personality, sophisticated media presentation, focused populist message, and traditional get-out-the-vote organizing, combined to allow [Thaksin's party] to leave ... its closest rival in the political dust ... Thaksin ... has no equal in Thailand on how to attract political attention."
In 2005 Thaksin trounced the Democrat Party, which was favored by mostyellow shirts, and in 2006, when he called a new election, the Democrats simply refused to participate. By that time the Democrats, once the most powerful party in Thailand, had been reduced to a small rump in Parliament, holding less than one hundred out of the five hundred seats in total. Instead of contesting the 2006 election, then, the yellow shirts, who shared political leanings with the Democrat Party, tried to paralyze the country. They stormed Parliament and shut it down, trapping lawmakers and forcing some senior ministers to flee, James Bondstyle, over a fence and into a nearby building. Later, they laid siege to the main international airport, throwing commerce into turmoil and severely damaging tourism, one of the country's main sources of foreign exchange.
After months of rallies, Thaksin's government was finally ousted in a coup in 2006, but this only led to more chaos. For nearly a decade now, Thailand has weathered one street protest after another, with both sides disdaining democratic institutions and refusing to resolve their differences at the ballot box instead of in the streets, often with bloody results. After Thaksin and, later, other pro-Thaksin parties were prevented from assuming power despite their electoral mandates, Thailand's working classes formed their own movement. They donned red clothing—Thaksin's color—in response to the yellow shirts. (The red shirts' official name was the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship.) Just as the yellow shirts had tried to create havoc and paralyze the economy, so too the red shirts attempted to destroy what was left of democratic culture and order. They laid siege to Parliament, forcing lawmakers loyal to the yellow shirts to flee. In April 2009, they stormed a meeting of Southeast Asian nations in the resort town of Pattaya, forcing many visiting Asian leaders to hide inside their hotel, and ultimately causing the meeting to be canceled, to the great embarrassment of the Thai government. Finally, in the spring of 2010, the red shirts converged on Bangkok.
In July 2011, despite efforts by Thailand's middle classes and its military to prevent the red shirts from taking power, the red shirts' favored party, called Puea Thai, won national elections again, forming a majority in parliament. The electoral victory handed the prime ministership to Yingluck Shinawatra, the party's leader—and the youngest sister of former prime minister Thaksin. Soon, Thailand was boiling again, as Thaksin's opponents revolted against his sister's government, warning that if Thaksin returned to Bangkok—and to power—they might well riot in the streets again, shutting down the city once more.
In the late 1990s, the possibility of such a breakdown of democracy in Thailand seemed remote. After a massive popular demonstration of hundreds of thousands in Bangkok ousted a military regime in 1992, Thais believed they had finally created a stable democracy. At the Bangkok Post, young reporters often seemed downright jubilant. During the day, they crawled through traffic in their cars to research investigative pieces unthinkable under past dictatorships; at night, they often attended informal strategy sessions about how to make good on the promises written into the new, progressive constitution passed in 1997. That groundbreaking constitution guaranteed many new rights and freedoms, created new national institutions to monitor graft, and strengthened political parties at the expense of unelected centers of power—the palace, the military, big business, and the elite civil service—that together had run Thailand since the end of the absolute monarchy in the 1930s. It also set the stage for elections in 2001 that were probably the freest in Thailand's history. Meanwhile, the media utilized its new freedoms, along with new technologies like the Internet and satellite television, to explore formerly taboo topics like political corruption and labor rights.
By the early 2000s, many Thais felt great pride in their nation's democratic development. Outsiders noticed, too. "Thailand's freedom, openness, strength, and relative prosperity make it a role model in the region for what people can achieve when they are allowed to," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly declared in 2002. Besides Kelly, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and then Secretary of State Colin Powell, among others, heaped praise on Bangkok. Powell declared in 2002, "Thailand has lived up to our expectations in so many ways." In its 1999 report, the international monitoring organization Freedom House ranked Thailand a "free" nation.
Today, Thailand looks almost nothing like a model emerging democracy. The never-ending cycle of street protest, by both the middle class and the poor, paralyzes policy making, hinders economic growth, and deters investment at a time when authoritarian competitors like China and Vietnam are vacuuming up foreign capital. Few Thais now trust the integrity of the judiciary, the civil service, or other national institutions. Even the king, once so revered that Thais worshipped him like a god, has seen his impartiality questioned. The Thai military now wields enormous influence behind the scenes, a dramatic reversal from the 1990s, when most Thais believed the military had returned to the barracks for good. A once freewheeling media has become increasingly shuttered and servile. The government now blocks over one hundred thousand websites, more than in neighboring Vietnam. Once-groundbreaking Bangkok newspapers now read like Asian versions of the old Pravda, lavishing praise on the red shirts or the yellow shirts depending on the paper's point of view. The Thai government even began locking up Americans visiting the country who'd written blog posts about the Thai monarchy years earlier. Even after Thaksin's sister took the reins of power, little changed, with arrests and Web blocking continuing as before.
Many middle-class Thais, faced with the breakdown of their once-vibrant democracy, seem to believe their country is somehow singular—that its collapse is due to a coincidence of factors that are unique to the country and hard for a foreigner to understand: the end of the reign of Bhumibol, who'd long played a stabilizing role; the Asian financial crisis, which pushed the country toward populism; and the unfortunate rise of Thaksin, a man with little commitment to the rule of law. "We were just unlucky," a senior Thai government official said. "If we'd not had Thaksin, if His Majesty could have been more involved, like in 1992, things would have been much different.... It's a Thai situation."
But democratic meltdowns like Thailand's have become depressingly common. In its annual international survey, the most comprehensive analysis of freedom around the globe, Freedom House, which uses a range of data to assess social, political, and economic freedoms in each nation, found that global freedom plummeted in 2010 for the fifth year in a row, the longest continuous decline in nearly forty years. At the same time, most authoritarian nations had become more repressive, stepping up their oppressive measures with little resistance from the democratic world. Overall, Freedom House reported, twenty-five nations went backward, in terms of freedom, in 2010 alone, while only eleven made any gains; among the decliners were critical regional powers like Mexico and Ukraine. This despite the fact that in 2011 one of the most historically authoritarian parts of the world, the Middle East, seemed to begin to change. The decline, Freedom House noted, was most pronounced among what it called the "middle ground" of nations, primarily in the developing world—nations that have begun democratizing but are not solid and stable democracies. Indeed, the number of electoral democracies fell in 2010 to its lowest number since 1995. "A 'freedom recession' and an authoritarian resurgence have clearly emerged as global trends," writes Freedom House's director of research, Arch Puddington. "Over the last four years, the dominant pattern has been one of growing restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of expression and association in authoritarian settings, and a failure to continue democratic progress in previously improving countries." Freedom House also found an increasing "truculence" among authoritarian regimes. This truculence actually was only made stronger by the Arab Spring, which led autocratic regimes like China and Uzbekistan to crack down harder on their own populations. The International Federation for Human Rights, an organization that monitors abuses around the world, found in its late-2011 annual report that the Arab uprisings had little impact on a dire, deteriorating climate for human rights defenders worldwide.
Indeed, in the fall of 2011 Russia, which along with China is one of the most powerful authoritarian nations, made clear that any hopes of change were just a mirage, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has dominated Russia for more than a decade, announced that, in a secret deal with President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin would once again assume the presidency in 2012 and potentially serve two more terms, which would keep him in control of the Kremlin until 2024, longer than some Soviet leaders had lasted. Putin had been constitutionally barred from serving another presidential term after his first two terms ended in 2008, and once Medvedev assumed the presidency some Russian liberals had hoped that he would introduce reforms, despite his history as a close confidante of Putin's. Indeed, in office Medvedev declared that Russia's criminal justice system needed to be overhauled, and that the country should open up its political system, but his announcement that he had secretly agreed with Putin to manipulate the presidency and prime ministership to put Putin back in power showed that he, too, was at heart hardly a democrat. When Russia's finance minister questioned the handoff of power from Medvedev back to Putin, he was summarily fired, in a clear message.
The stagnation of democracy predates this five-year period, Freedom House noted; since 2000 democracy gained little ground around the world, before sliding backward beginning in the mid-2000s. "Since they were first issued in 1972, the findings in Freedom in the World have conveyed a story of broad advances," Freedom House reported. "But freedom's forward march peaked around the beginning of the [2000s]."
Even as some democrats were celebrating the Arab Spring and hoping that, as in 1989, its revolutions might spread to other parts of the world, a mountain of other evidence supported Freedom House's gloomy conclusions. Another of the most comprehensive studies of global democracy, compiled by Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation, uses data examining democracies' ability to function, manage government, and uphold freedoms to produce what it calls the "transformation index." The overall goal of the index is to analyze the state and quality of democracy in every developing nation that has achieved some degree of freedom. To do so, Bertelsmann looks at a range of characteristics including the stability of democratic institutions, political participation, the rule of law, and the strength of the state, among other areas. And the most recent index found "the overall quality of democracy has eroded [throughout the developing world].... The key components of a functioning democracy, such as political participation and civil liberties, have suffered qualitative erosion.... These developments threaten to hollow out the quality and substance of governance." The index concluded that the number of "highly defective democracies"—democracies with institutions, elections, and political culture so flawed that they no longer qualified as real democracies—had roughly doubled between 2006 and 2010. By 2010, in fact, nearly 53 of the 128 countries assessed by the index were categorized as "defective democracies."
Sixteen of these fifty-three, including regionally and globally powerful states like Russia and Kenya, qualified as "highly deficient democracies," countries that had such a lack of opportunity for opposition voices, problems with the rule of law, and unrepresentative political structures that they were now little better than autocracies. The percentage of "highly deficient democracies" in the index has roughly doubled in just four years. And in Africa, which had been at the center of the global wave of democratization in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the deterioration was most pronounced. Between 2008 and 2010, Bertelsmann found, sub-Saharan Africa was home to nine of the thirteen nations in the developing world that suffered the greatest deterioration in the quality of their political systems. Among these backsliders were Senegal, Tanzania, and Madagascar, which once were among the greatest hopes for democracy on the continent.
Excerpted from Democracy in Retreat by Joshua Kurlantzick Copyright © 2013 by Joshua Kurlantzick. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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