Of kings, coups, and Asian democracies

Asia's slow ride toward stable democracies was thrown in reverse Tuesday when Thailand's military took power from a popular, elected leader. The fact that the king condoned the ouster only highlights the many drags on democracy in a volatile region.

The Thai coup comes as the UN Security Council is expected to begin a discussion next week about the lack of democracy in neighboring Burma (Myanmar), where a military junta also squelched an election to hold onto power in the early 1990s. The US wants to showcase how Burma has become a threat to global security.

Also on Thailand's border, Cambodia has been failing to improve a very limited democracy under a strongman, Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former protégé of Vietnam's Communist Party and a former Khmer Rouge. He was able to hold onto power with US help despite losing an election in 1993.

And in the Philippines, a former US territory whose 1986 "people power" revolution against a dictator helped create momentum for new Asian democracies, questions over the legitimacy of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's rule has led to instability and coup rumors.

In many Asian nations, democracy's roots remain shallow because poor, rural peasants are vulnerable to manipulation and intimidation by urban power brokers, whether they be rich politicians, army factions, powerful businessmen, or royalty. Personal loyalties can matter more than the merits of issues. Votes can be bought with T-shirts, and guns go a long way to keep farmers in line.

In Thailand, one reason widely given for the coup was an underlying competition in the countryside between the much-revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a constitutional monarch who has been a stable force for decades, and Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted prime minister who was elected three times by wide margins since 2001 with mainly rural votes.

Mr. Thaksin has used his business wealth and marketing skills to win the support of the mainly Buddhist Thai farmers, while alienating a much-smaller urban elite in Bangkok with his accumulation of political power, apparently corrupt business ways, and attempts to control the Army. His vision of Thai farming tied to global markets clashes with that of the king, who has worked with the rural poor to create self-sufficient, domestic markets. The king and prime minister also differed on how to deal with a Muslim uprising in the south.

With an election slated for next month, the chance of violent street protests between Thaksin's supporters and a political opposition that believed he had insulted the king led the Army to take power. Such coups were thought to have been in the past. This one seems aimed at rewriting the Constitution to elect leaders who cannot again grab so much power.

Young democracies have difficulties in creating checks and balances necessary to prevent concentrations of power. Old habits die hard, and Thailand shows that traditional power centers and big money can still skew democracy if voters are easily wooed.

The Thai military claims that it cannot allow a new election for another year. That's one year too long for a fragile democracy to wait and try again to get it right.

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