Observations from Asia

In collecting of information, Sun Tzu tells us that we must seek outside sources because every one of us is limited by our normal perspective, which is defined by our existing position. Having just returned from Asia where the perspective on events is very different, this warning seems very appropriate. I wish I had time right now to do a longer post on the Asian perspective on democracy and especially the War on Terror, but right now, I only have time to make a few notes. Thailand has recently had a military coup, which has caused its people to question the nature of democracy, especially as how it leads to a tyranny of the majority. The Thai people see their salvation as the fact they have a king that provides some stability and control over the two opposing coercive forces of government: the army and the police force. The army just took control, representing the tradition components of aristocracy in Thai society. However, the army seized control from politicians who represented the new power of big business, who use the government largely to line their own pockets and who were close to the police in Bangkok. Both overnments, the old democratic one and the new military one pursue programs that seek to win popularity by using the power of the state to “fix” problems that are beyond their control. In other words, the defect in democracy is the appeal of populism, creating problems that justify a rightist military coup or force a decent into "socialist" autocracies. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, authoritarian (but laissez faire) governments in the region, such as that in Singapore, actually have a better record of protecting ordinary people’s lives from the chaos of government action than the local democracies. The flaw in democracy, at least from the people I talked to, is that politicians (or their military replacements) can create a majority by promising some benefit to the majority at some cost to a minority. For example, alarmed by complaints of “profiteering,” the current Thai government put price controls on roses for Valentines Day (which has become a huge holiday all over Asia). Of course, this didn’t increase the supply of roses, so roses were soon unavailable, bought up by those who got them first at the artificially low prices. A couple of days later, the stories in the paper told the story of the rose farmers in Southern Thailand who were devastated by the price controls. Apparently, many of them relied on Valentine’s Day prices increases to make their profit for the whole year. Without that profit, many will not survive. So, the government addressed a “crisis” for the benefit of rose purchasers in the city that made roses unavailable in the city and hurt rose producers in the country, who may not survive to produce roses for Valentine’s Day next year. The Thai newspapers cite what is happening now in Venezuela under Chavez, a situation everyone in Thailand sees as ending in disaster for the people in Venezuela. The Thai people don’t have to go further than neighboring Cambodia for some experience in the death toll for such socialist experiments. Just north of Thailand today, Myanmar (the former Burma) offers an object example of populism spinning out of control into socialism. I noticed that one way the current government is currying favor with the majority was cracking down on the sex trade. Most of the Thai people we talked to were very traditional Buddhists, who hated the sex trade. They applauded the government for taking steps to get it under control. A front page story while we were they was about a college student who wore a provocative gown to a movie awards ceremony (in other words, wore a standard Hollywood gown). She was actually disciplined by the college, having to perform 15 days community service to maintain her enrollment because she had dishonored the institution and served as a bad example for Thai youth. (Can you imagine such a thing happening in an American college?) This wasn’t done by the government, but it was illustrative of the desire in Thai society to maintain traditional moral standards against modern “secular” values.