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Democracy Troubles in Southeast Asia

Thailand's fledgling democracy was dealt another blow last week when the country's constitutional court ordered the ruling party disbanded (BBC) and ousted Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat for election fraud. The court ruling came in the wake of anti-government protests that paralyzed the capital, Bangkok, and just two years after a coup ousted a different prime minister, raising troubling questions about the stability of a country once hailed as a democratic success story.Thailandserves as a reminder of the ongoing struggles of democracies in Southeast Asia, a region whose governments have usually been regarded as reliable U.S. allies.

In the case of Thailand, the country is enmeshed in a political crisis arising from what Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok calls "a deep-seated and irreconcilable conflict (PDF) between the older, more traditional Thailand and a new Thailand." Writing in the Journal of Democracy, he says the bureaucrats, the military, and the monarchy, who have called the shots in the country for decades, are now pitted against the growing demands and expectations of previously neglected segments of Thai society.

There are echoes of Thai concerns elsewhere in the region. A 2008 report from human rights monitoring group Freedom House notes a decline in freedoms in Malaysia and the Philippines, which continue to be riddled by political turmoil. Yet the Economist argues that what would advance democracy is "more capable, more principled and more unifying opposition figures than those the region has seen so far."

In addition to troubles with opposition forces, many Southeast Asian states are battling Muslim insurgencies.A 2007 report (PDF) by the nonpartisan U.S. Congressional Research Service, warned that "Islamist terrorist groups have been able to exploit the sense of alienation produced in...

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