Huge stakes on the line in crisis-center Thailand

by Tom Plate

The stakes in the outcome of the ongoing Thai Crisis are huge and go beyond the strict parameters of the country itself.

Geopolitically Thailand has been a solid U.S. ally, particularly during the Cold War and the Vietnam War.

Economically it has been a vital force amid the cluster of Association of Southeast Asian states.

Demographically, it is anything but small, with a population greater than that of France or the United Kingdom or Spain or South Korea or Myanmar or South Africa.

The domestic political crisis looks to be prolonged, and the possibility of catastrophic implosion remains very real.

One has to wonder whether the world is taking the Thai crisis seriously enough. Is this drama — perhaps to end at the level of a viral Syrian tragedy — high enough on U.S. President Barack Obama’s worry list?

Is it not worthy of an intervention by Ban Ki-moon, the caring U.N. secretary general who ordinarily seems ever ready to minister to a crisis?

Just take a quick look at Southeast Asia. In the region are countries struggling to define themselves politically. Will Myanmar’s Burmese Spring proceed apace or regress back to military rule?

And how about pivotal Indonesia, with more Muslims within its far-flung borders than any country on Earth? Presidential elections are scheduled for July, but doctrinaire Muslim groups seek to derail the secularization of its polity, with inevitable collateral damage to democratization.

Consider further that Southeast Asia, one of the world’s most important geopolitical economies, has a combined population of more than 620 million and a GDP of more than $2.2 trillion. Regional tumult could trigger global reverberations.

One recalls the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1999. It started in Thailand. And for too long the West virtually ignored it — we all remember that, right?

It is hard to believe that the outcome of the Thai crisis will have no effect on the rest of the region. And, for global impact, the potential take-away from the current Thai Crisis may contain a clue or two regarding the salience of liberal democracy in nations where the consensus on core issues is fragile or even divided.

Will Thailand unfold as a growing democracy (maintaining its monarchy, as has Britain) — or as a throwback oligarchy (and perhaps crippling the monarchy’s legitimacy)? Or might it break up into a Sudan and South Sudan — a horrid thought in itself. The ultimate lesson from the Thai crisis may be profound.

The key question is about democracy. The system can be very hard to operate, much less initiate — just ask the Iraqis. And despite the noble hope of Stanford’s Francis Fukuyama, history doesn’t often come to a neat and logical resting place but rather tends toward surprise and even destructive convulsion.

Rather than being able to enjoy the end of history, we may be facing something like the beginning of something much less predictable.

Modern Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew — a hugely significant historical figure now very ill — has said bluntly that the system of one-person/one-vote seems to him a weak candidate to serve as the end point of modern political evolution.

That view is resisted, of course, by democratic ideologists. They insist on democracy as the sole gold standard of ethical government. Maybe.

The unfolding tragedy in Thailand encapsulates the great triad of political thought. Follow the approach of the idealistic, demanding Plato and you agree that what is required is not process but result: rule from the top of supreme wisdom and intelligence.

Or follow a grumpy, cautious Aristotle and only a relative elite may be permitted to vote for the leader.

Or follow the late Harvard professsor John Rawls and his bucolically firm insistence that the absence of a literal totality of citizen inclusiveness in a political system prevents true justice and fairness.

The outcome of the Thai Crisis will offer clues about our future — about which particular direction history might impose on us as it moves toward the 22nd century. Or whether we will we continue to be offered brutally conflicting choices and nasty political outcomes.

Thailand thus merits extremely careful watching — and much, much worrying.

Tom Plate, Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar on Asian and Pacific Studies, is author of the “Giants of Asia” quartet of books on Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir Mohamad, Thaksin Shinawatra and Ban Ki-moon. His new book is “In the Middle of the Future: Tom Plate on Asia” (Marshall Cavendish Singapore)