Tiennamen to Tahrir
Redder skies loom large over Asia, in China the sanguine are children of the Red Sun, and in Thailand rises the spirit of red shirts, ponders Gamal Nkrumah
Asia's "People's Power" has claimed a critical centre-right scalp -- Thailand's Democrats. The country's poor, especially in the least developed northeast demanded to steer Thailand leftwards, and elected a parliament where the Pheu Thai Party is preponderant. The political ascent of the Pheu Thai will change perceptions of what it means to be a viable democracy in spite of not being an obviously affluent nation of Southeast Asia.
The correlation between national and personal affluence is being heightened, even as the stranglehold of the military and monarchy on the Thai political scene is being broken. And yet while poverty and political power are not one and the same thing, the two in Thailand are closely connected. The poor voted overwhelmingly for Pheu Thai, the political legacy of the billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, the charismatic former Thai premier who assumed office in January 2001. The reasons that he excites such suspicion among Thailand's political and economic elite and military establishment is more to do with his image as a contemporary "Robin Hood" that with his party's electoral programme per se.
Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted from office in a military coup d'état in 2006 and is now exiled in Dubai after a stint in London precisely because he was seen by the highly politicised higher echelons of the Thai military as a champion of the disadvantaged and the politically marginalised. His sister took up his political mantle and the underdogs were disenchanted with the outgoing Democrats -- confusingly in Thai political parlance they are the rightwing staunchly monarchist and pro-military political elite. Promptly, calls for an amnesty for those banned from participating in politics gripped the pro-democracy campaign spearheaded by Pheu Thai.
Thailand, lest we forget, is Southeast Asia's oldest United States treaty ally. The fear of Thailand's first female Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's charming sister, could well be overdone. Yingluck Shinawatra "is being played by everyone, especially her puppet-master brother," Thailand's influential daily The Nation raved. Even so, Yingluck Shinawatra is widely expected to emulate her brother through populist and profligate programmes.
The democracy stirrings, tempestuous clouds gathering over Thailand's colossal neighbour to the north, China, bode well, in spite of possible turbulence if not Pandemonium ahead. Chinese President Hu Jintao officiated over celebrations marking the 90th anniversary of Communist Party rule on 1 July. "Looking back at China's development and progress over the past 90 years, we have naturally come to this basic conclusion: success in China hinges on the Party," Hu Jintao plainly stated. For countless pro-democracy activists in China and abroad the Chinese President's statement augurs ill. Yet there is a silver lining in the horizon to his ominous admonition.
The Chinese economic miracle could still have a long way to run if sweeping democratic reforms are not instituted. Yet it is critically important to note that the Chinese Communist Party has a radically different perspective of the very notion of human rights than the Western viewpoint.
The People's Republic of China emphasises economic and social rights as opposed to freedoms of expression and political association. Uplifting the standard of living, if it is to be carried out responsibly, is vital in a largely developing nation where many millions still lack access to basic necessities in spite of the extraordinary strides effected in two-digit economic growth over the past two decades.
The Chinese authorities are nervous about the repercussions of the Arab uprisings that toppled autocratic one-party regimes. Chinese pundits are acutely conscious of the parallels. However, Hu Jintao pinpointed one particular truism. The Chinese Communist Party may be domineering, but it has transformed China into the next superpower, the extraordinary feat Arab dictatorships have repeatedly failed to accomplish. China has a global economic reach that Arab states are nowhere near matching.
"Egypt is a reminder that absent accountability and a mechanism for airing grievances can easily lead to tensions that simmer and then boil over," Hong Kong's The South China Morning Post editorial so succinctly put it. "No government, China's included, should believe itself immune from grass-roots desire for more accountability. The voice of the people has to be allowed to flourish and be listened to," the paper postulated. Hong Kong is not exactly a part of the People's Republic, but it is an integral constituent of China.
So where does that locate the Arab awakenings' aspirations for greater democracy? And, how does that relate to Arab hopes for prosperity? Democracy and development are not necessarily incompatible. The People's Republic, however, insists in anachronistic terminology that the "dictatorship of the proletariat" is key to economic progress. And the political implications raised by the Chinese model of economic development presided over by one-party governance is felt most acutely by its immediate neighbours in Southeast Asia, in countries like Thailand.
"As China rises rapidly in terms of regional and global clout, any discussion on the ASEAN future course of action, whatever it is or may be would no longer find uniformity," Kavi Chongkittavan editor of Thailand's prestigious newspaper The Nation mused. "Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia have a sizeable presence of Chinese descendants and strong economic and social influence," extrapolated The Nation's editor.
The key lesson trumpeted by China, however, is that democracy is not necessarily a panacea to a country's economic ills.
"Vote-buying still exists, but we don't have conclusive data on this matter. However, voters care more about policies that are relevant to their well-being," Thai opinion poll director Kiatanantha Lounkaew was quoted as saying in The Nation. What the Thai electorate now deems at stake is the economic prospects of the people of Thailand, and not the right to exercise democracy per se. Politics is the means by which economic ends are met.
"We found that a lot of people in the northeast have exchanged views on the farm price guarantee plan versus the crop mortgage plan. That is a healthy development," Thailand's opinion poll director noted.
Thailand is no unconventional democracy. Thailand's powerful army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha declined to intervene directly in favour of the Democrats. The moral of the story is that the military must be kept at bay. This is a pertinent question that Egyptians aspiring to nothing less than "genuine democracy" emanating from the legitimacy of Tahrir Square's slogan "Secularism, neither theocracy nor militarism" are grappling with.
Asia has witnessed its own "People's Power" revolutions decades ago. There are numerous place names in Asia that echo the sanctity of Tahrir Square. For instance, Gwangju, southeast of Seoul, that ended the military's monopoly over power in South Korea in 1980. Then there was Manila in which ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. And, of course, Jakarta that ended Suharto's iron-fisted rule in 1998. "People's Power" engendered the ouster of autocrats in South Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia.
China has come a long way from Tienanmen Square, where a similar uprising was crushed. Tahrir, in Arabic Liberation, is not quite Chengtianmen, in Chinese The Gate of Accepting the Heavenly Mandate, as Tienanmen was originally called. Pro-democracy activists along with policymakers across the Arab world and much of Asia ponder how best to adapt or learn from the experience of the one-party Sinosphere fast spreading its tentacles across the globe. Thailand is no exception.
In October 2006, Walden Bello, author of A Siamese Tragedy: Development and Disintegration in Modern Thailand, warned that Thailand's democracy was a sham that exclusively served the interests of the country's elite. "Even before Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted on 19 September , Thai democracy was in severe crisis because of a succession of elected but do-nothing or exceedingly corrupt regimes of which the Thaksin government was the worst," Bello observed.
Thailand's outgoing premier Abhisit Vejajiva tendered his resignation as Democrat Party leader. Thaksin Shinawatra may well triumphantly return to his homeland, but the question uppermost in people minds is where China is heading politically.
"The [Communist] party's efforts to present a festive image of national cohesion are designed to hide a disturbing deterioration in freedom of expression and information, especially during the last five months," read a recent statement by the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF).
The Communists carried out a crackdown sparked by calls for nationwide protests inspired by the uprisings in the Arab world. The children of Tienanmen, too, have much to learn from Tahrir.
According to RSF, some 30 journalists and 75 netizens are currently detained in China, admittedly a somewhat insignificant figure for a country with some 1.5 billion people. Still, amid mass revolutionary song contests and live television galas and "revolutionary blockbuster propaganda" as one Chinese blogger so aptly put it, dissent is growing under the tight surveillance of the Chinese authorities.
Yet China is far from being politically uniform and homogeneous. More than 100,000 contestants took part in competitions to render nostalgically the revolutionary songs of the Mao era. They were venting their venom as much on the current leadership of the Chinese Communist Party who they see as having wavered from the straight and narrow path of Maoism and into the uncharted territory of "market socialism", whatever that really means.
On the other end of the spectrum, outspoken economist Mao Yushi wrote a polemical and controversial article entitled "Decanonise Mao" recently. He hinted that Mao must be held accountable for the death of more than 30 million Chinese during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). A lively debate about the legacy of Mao is under way across China.
Chinese altercations are reverberating across Southeast Asia. "The popular mood has gathered momentum very fast," noted the popular blogger Wen Yunchao better known by his nickname "Beifeng". His views and those of Mao Yushi sharply contrast with that of Xin Ziling, former military officer at China's National Defence University and author of The Fall of the Red Sun. Who is to know for sure who is "spreading slander against Mao Zedong, defaming the history of the Communist Party and inciting political turmoil"?
The rights and wrongs of Chinese totalitarianism and Thai democracy are difficult to ascertain. For now, however, the discomfort lies with those who try to hold on tenaciously to the reins of power. Whether in Bangkok or Beijing, those yearning for a glimpse of viable democracy -- social, economic and political -- have a long wait ahead.