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Who should be more embarrassed after the cancellation of the ASEAN summit that was to have been held last weekend in Pattaya, Thailand: Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as whole? Mr. Abhisit is certainly in the hot seat after insisting that the summit can and should go ahead as planned (after a previous cancellation) and the spectacle accompanying his government’s failure to protect the assembled grandees was broadcast to the world. But equally troubled is ASEAN, which has, as usual, turned a blind eye to the domestic travails of a member nation. As a result, it has been unable to conduct badly needed business. At a time when the world is being told that the future belongs to Asia, regional institutions are demonstrating their impotence.

It is tempting to call the chaos in Thailand karma. Mr. Abhisit came to power last December when his supporters capped months of protests against the previous government by occupying and closing Bangkok’s two main airports. That forced the cancellation of the originally scheduled ASEAN summit. A court dissolved the then ruling party on charges of corruption, several lawmakers shifted their loyalties, and Mr. Abhisit was elected prime minister.

Supporters of the previous government vowed to reverse that turn of events and they have borrowed the tactics of their opponents. They took to the streets to block the government from functioning and aimed to disrupt the rescheduled ASEAN meeting. They overran the conference center where the summit was to be held, forcing Mr. Abhisit to declare a state of emergency and to evacuate the leaders who were present.

Having achieved that goal, they moved back to Bangkok. About 40,000 protesters gathered at Government House to set up roadblocks and barricades. Sunday night the prime minister declared a state of emergency and by Monday police were firing shots in the air to disburse the protesters; those actions had little effect. Government supporters have taken matters into their own hands; clashes have killed two people and put dozens of others in the hospital.

The protesters seek the resignation of Mr. Abhisit and the restoration of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, driven from office by a military coup in 2006. Officially, he was ousted on charges of corruption; in fact, his real crime was challenging the power of Bangkok elites by establishing a rural power base. Mr. Abhisit and his supporters are backed by the traditional elites, who are discomfitted by real democracy — one man, one vote. They are now reaping the seeds of the extra-parliamentary maneuvers they practiced against Mr. Thaksin’s successors.

The key question for Thailand is what the military will do. It intervened to overthrow Mr. Thaksin and wrote a new constitution that enshrined its power and that of the Bangkok elites. Yet the first elections after the new charter was passed brought Mr. Thaksin’s supporters back to office. While the military had no stomach to intervene again, it stood aside when mass protests challenged a government for which it had little sympathy. After turning a blind eye to that round of civil disobedience, a crackdown against Mr. Thaksin’s supporters would destroy whatever is left of its image and could permanently fracture the country. Yet, having launched 18 coups since the 1930s, the possibility of yet another is rising — especially as Mr. Thaksin makes nightly phone calls to his supporters from exile and urges them to rise up against the government in a “people’s revolution.”

But the events of last weekend have not only blighted the images of Mr. Abhisit and his country. The Pattaya summit was to mark ASEAN’s (once-delayed) emergence as a reinvigorated institution. The charter agreed last year was to begin a new era for a group often derided as a “talk shop,” more interested in process than substance. Coming on the heels of the Group of 20 summit, which, with four Asian nations, is another sign of the shift in global power to the East, the ASEAN meetings would have demonstrated the region’s readiness to step up and take concrete action in the face of the global economic crisis.

Instead, the summit was canceled and its participants evacuated. At the meetings, China was to announce plans to create a $10 billion investment cooperation fund and offer $15 billion in credit to Southeast Asian nations. That proposal will proceed, but the symbolism of the lost opportunity — launching the fund at the ASEAN summit — is inescapable.

ASEAN insists on its policy of noninterference in the affairs of member states. That policy has kept the group from addressing insurgencies that plague the region, border conflicts, or the insult to decency that is the government of Myanmar. But never before has ASEAN’s willingness to stay silent had such a direct impact on the organization itself. The reluctance to hold Thailand accountable for disregarding its own democratic principles has kept ASEAN from conducting its own business. The question now is whether Mr. Abhisit and ASEAN will learn from this experience. Business as usual no longer looks like an option.

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