The Asian Experience

What the region can — and cannot — teach the Arab world about democracy through revolution

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David H. Wells / Corbis

March 1986, Manila People power alone isn't enough

How, my overseas friends asked me, had I survived living in a battleground? Given that some of my journalistic colleagues were living in real war zones, the question was almost embarrassing. Life in Bangkok, with its gilded temples and hedonistic spas, shouldn't have been worthy of commiseration. And yet, it is true: last year, after months of antigovernment protests that paralyzed the business district, the Thai capital convulsed in violence. While my children napped at home, I drove 10 minutes to cover the clashes between security forces and so-called Red Shirt demonstrators. All told, the mayhem of April and May claimed around 90 lives, including those of a couple of foreign journalists. A motorcycle-taxi driver who worked near my home was among the dead. Friends complained of bullet holes pockmarking the facades of their office towers, while other buildings were reduced to burned-out carcasses.

I've been thinking about the Thai protests as civil unrest has flared halfway across the globe in Tunisia, Yemen and, most dramatically, Egypt. At first glance, the plotlines of Bangkok and Cairo seem similar: thousands of brave souls potentially sacrificing their lives to crusade against a rigid, out-of-touch government. But Thailand's political crisis — the result of a bloody deadlock between two bitterly opposed political camps that shows no sign of abating — is no model of democratic rebellion. It is a mockery of it. Back in 1992, protesters in Thailand did indeed overthrow a military regime. Since then, the country has failed to nurture its newfound democracy. Every few years, Thai ballots are cast; faith in this ritual is so stunted, however, that many dissenters prefer to unleash their anger on the streets.

Asia gave birth to people power in 1986, when a sea of yellow-clad demonstrators peacefully overthrew a dictator in the Philippines. Other popular uprisings against authoritarianism followed, from Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan to Mongolia and Indonesia. Watching the events unfold in the Arab world, Asia's fledgling democracies can be forgiven for indulging in a moment of nostalgia. While revolutionary zeal may have toppled the region's strongmen, however, too few of their successors have bothered to build the institutions needed to sustain democracy beyond its first flush. Democracy through revolution is heady stuff, but it's not always a template for building lasting freedom and justice.

The withered potential of people power is best examined on its home turf. This month, the Philippines will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the start of its historic uprising. Those following the events in Egypt will find many parallels. Ferdinand Marcos, a corrupt, aging, U.S.-backed dictator, was ousted by a populace that rallied, in part, thanks to technology. (Then it was radio, not Facebook or Twitter.) But a quarter-century later, with the son of people-power heroine Corazon Aquino now serving as President, the Philippines is still beset by the poverty, cronyism and nepotism that provoked the 1986 protests.

These failings are not the Philippines' alone. Across Asia, elections are held, but vote buying taints the results. Politics is dominated by the same old families. Economic growth often rewards the few rather than the many. And from Malaysia and East Timor to Taiwan and Thailand, I have met local journalists who passed information on to me because they felt it was too dangerous to write about the issues themselves. Without the crucial check of a free press — or independent legislatures and courts, for that matter — democracy exists in name only.

Still, Asia also offers heartening lessons for the Arab world. There's South Korea, for instance, which overthrew a U.S.-backed military dictatorship, then carefully constructed a prosperous democracy. And then there's Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation. In 1998, after 32 years in power, strongman Suharto was forced out by massive street protests. Since then, change in Indonesia has occurred not in one cataclysmic jolt but instead through years of brick-by-brick nation building. That may not sound sexy, but it works. Indonesia has now peacefully cycled through several secular-minded leaders, and its civil society is flourishing. The country's problems are still immense: graft and poverty persist, as does sectarian conflict. But Egypt could do a lot worse than to follow the model of this moderate, Muslim-majority democracy.n

Beech, who is now TIME's Beijing bureau chief, spent the past few years in Thailand