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Going Down

Democracy once seemed ascendant in many East and Central Asian countries. Not so much anymore.

Most days, the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel in Manila caters to a cross-section of elite Philippine society. Politicians in sharp suits swap stories in the coffee shop, while society ladies with bouffant hairdos and glittery mobile phones take their usual tables for lunch. But last week, a different crowd crashed the Peninsula, as a group of army officers barged into the hotel and commandeered the place to call for the resignation of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The standoff ended after seven hours, when an armored police truck smashed into the lobby.

In truth, the episode at the normally placid hotel wasn’t very surprising. The Philippines has weathered numerous coup-like attempts in recent years, as well as frequent street demonstrations against the president, which sometimes have shut down the entire capital. And the Philippine unrest points to a larger problem: Democracy once seemed assured in Asia, where many countries had made the transition from authoritarian rule over the past two decades. But today, that success story no longer seems so secure.

The Philippines’ democracy is older than many in Asia. It began after the end of Ferdinand Marcos’ strongman rule in the wake of massive “people power protests” in 1986. Its Congress, modeled on ours, debates issues with so much passion that legislators sometimes seem ready for a fistfight. The country boasts one of the liveliest presses in Asia--the number of evening political talk-fests on Philippine TV would put American cable programming to shame. And on my last trip to Manila, earlier this year, I found myself struggling to keep interviews running less than an hour, since everyone I met would give their opinions on politics ad nauseam.

But today, the Philippines’ democracy seems near collapse. Rampant political corruption has eaten away at public trust: In the most recent Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, the country ranked 131st, tied with Yemen. Rather than trusting politicians to resolve disputes, average citizens resort to street demonstrations on a regular basis. And let’s not forget that these street demonstrations helped oust the country’s previous president, Joseph Estrada.

The creakiness of Filipino democracy is hardly unique. Over the past two years, coups suffocated democracy in Thailand and Bangladesh, while in Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, once considered a reformer who would liberalize the country, has threatened to use the Internal Security Act, a law that allows detention without trial, to lock up protestors who’ve gathered in the streets. In Central Asia, even countries like Kyrgyzstan, famed for their supposedly democratic “color revolutions,” seem to be backsliding into authoritarianism. In East Timor, a new nation once hailed as a potential triumph, celebrations have given way to political in-fighting and graft. And Pervez Musharraf’s recent actions in Pakistan, of course, have undermined the pretensions that he is slowly putting the country on the path to democratic rule.

In Cambodia, which also seemed on the path to democracy after resolving its long-running civil war in the early 1990s, Prime Minister Hun Sen has strengthened his iron grip on power, to the point that the country has almost no real opposition movement. “Hun Sen appears to be following the Burmese model by imprisoning peaceful critics of his increasingly authoritarian government,” announced Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, after the Cambodian leader locked up several top humanitarian activists last year.

To be sure, Asia still houses some vibrant democracies, from South Korea to India, but the return of autocracy is no accident. Focused on maintaining allies in the “war on terror,” the Bush administration has said little as leaders from Pakistan to the Philippines to Malaysia clamp down on opposition. For instance, while the Clinton administration condemned Malaysia for using its Internal Security Act to arrest activists, the Bush administration has been much more forgiving. In Pakistan, a key U.S. ally, the White House has handled Musharraf with kid gloves, a sharp contrast to Burma, a country unimportant to the “war on terror,” and where both President Bush and the First Lady have harshly condemned the junta’s brutal treatment of protestors.

But the U.S. shouldn’t bear all the blame. The growing influence of China and Russia in Asia has only helped autocrats. Both big powers have backed authoritarians like Hun Sen and Uzbek president Islam Karimov when they’ve come under criticism from the West, and Russia clearly has tried to stop American efforts to support democracy in Central Asia. According to a New York Times report, Russia has pushed its Central Asian neighbors to pass legislation hindering NGOs working in their countries, and Moscow also puts articles in Central Asian publications condemning American-funded democracy programs. Meanwhile, China increasingly provides training programs for government officials from across the region.

Even with all these outside forces, though, many Asian nations would remain democratic if their own people thought democracy had delivered benefits. Though studies of Asian opinion like the Asian Barometer show widespread support for the idea of democracy, the first generation of Asian democratic politicians have proven miserable at the practice of it. In the Philippines, Bangladesh, and many other nations, politicians tend to view democracy as merely elections, and once in office they either help themselves to the spoils of the state and/or destroy the other elements of democratic culture, like Hun Sen’s evisceration of Cambodian NGOs. (Bangladesh frequently ranks among the lowest nations in the world in the aforementioned Corruption Perceptions Index.) Opposition parties, rather than trying to produce political platforms to oppose rulers, simply take their grievances to the streets.

Meanwhile, many Asian business elites have not signed onto the idea that liberal democracy can best preserve the rule of law needed for economic growth. As longtime Asia analyst Joe Studwell notes in his new book Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and South-East Asia, many of the richest tycoons in the region made their fortune not by embracing competition, but by taking advantage of ties to state monopolies. Though liberal democracy would help entrepreneurs, it might actually hurt these godfathers; not surprisingly, some of the biggest businessmen in Hong Kong also are the biggest critics of democrats in that city, and the greatest supporters of China.

With democracy so weak throughout the region, it’s not that surprising that military men still think they have a role to play. At the Peninsula Hotel in Manila, the army eventually gave up. But next time, don’t be so sure.