TIME: Why Democracy Is Struggling in Asia

By Hannah Beech Thursday, Jan. 01, 2009


That same point can be made today about many Asian nations. After the shackles of colonialism were overthrown, largely after World War II, the 21st century was supposed to herald the ascent of democracy in Asia. While parts of the region — from Burma and North Korea to Laos, Vietnam and China — are still governed by diktat, the past couple of decades have created a region that to all outward appearances is largely democratic. Over the past 10 years, some 20 Asian countries have held elections, and many have undergone peaceful transitions in government.

Yet throughout 2008, many Asians appeared to progressively lose their faith in democratic politics. In Thailand and South Korea, the streets have been convulsed by mass protests, despite elections that ushered in popular leaders in the past two years. Pakistan and East Timor are rapidly veering toward the status of failed states. Malaysia suffers from a paucity of good governance, proof that simply holding polls doesn't ensure a healthy democracy. Postelection riots shook Mongolia, while Bangladesh is trying to exorcise two years of military-backed rule with a strong voter turnout in its Dec. 29 polls that ushered the secular Awami League back to office. The Philippines, which staged the region's first People Power movement back in 1986, recently endured a state of emergency. Taiwan, where presidential elections 11 years ago marked the first time ever a Chinese society directly chose its leader, is turning against a new President in record time.

Even in India, the terror attacks in Mumbai uncovered a deep well of anger against the democratically elected government for its failure to carry out a fundamental function: protect citizens from harm. And Japan, the region's oldest democracy? In recent years the country has cycled through Prime Ministers nearly as quickly as fashion fads.