chapter  11
19 Pages

Politics and democracy

Theravada Buddhism and democracy It has often been astutely stated that democracy is interpreted as having different meanings by different people in different contexts. However, the term democracy is seen as a label of legitimacy and good governance and often the most undemocratic countries add the phrase “democracy” to their nation’s official title. Generally, in the West, non-democracies are considered a threat to world peace and need to be dealt with (Buger and Villumsen 2007). For example, US foreign policy seems to be far more concerned with North Korea, Iran, and Cuba than with Switzerland, New Zealand, and Canada. In the modern world, “democracy” is normally associated with having a good government and is something every country should strive for. However, democracy has had a very difficult time taking firm root in the Theravada Buddhist nations of Southeast Asia. Kamrava (1999: 87) stated, “Developing a democratic culture takes time; it is a matter of cultural change, and not every change does a democratic culture make.” While the region has seen dramatic changes in political and economic systems over the past hundred years, those changes have not necessarily led toward democratically elected governments. Does having a culture strongly influenced by Theravada Buddhism deter moves toward democracy? Jackson (2003: 245) made the claim, “doctrinal Buddhism provides a weak basis for democratic principles.” This statement could lay the foundation for a hypothesis why multi-party democracy with free and fair elections is not the form of government that has evolved in these four countries. While democracy is generally promoted as the best system of government yet created by mankind, democracy does not automatically result in good governance. Johannen and Gomez (2001) prophesized that in Southeast Asia, “There is a danger in the region that the democratic process will be blamed for bringing corrupt leaders into office. This underlines the fact that a trend toward democracy is by no means irreversible.” This has come true to a considerable extent in Thailand. Despite overwhelming popular support in elections and presiding over a government that oversaw rising economic growth, Thaksin Shinawatra was removed from office, with the justification his government was corrupt, by a

military coup and subsequent elected governments and prime ministers have been forced out of office by non-elected forces that have openly promoted abolishing governments selected by the one-vote-one-person method (Phongpaichit and Baker 2008; Ungpakorn 2007). While referring to the situation in Indonesia, Darusman’s comments (2001: 47) would equally apply in Thailand, “If we are to have democracy, we have to accept that we may be defeated politically in the political process by the majority; that we may have to pay taxes for the benefit of others.” However, acceptance of defeat at the ballot box has not become a universal value in the region. As of this writing, the transfer of power through an electoral process is the exception rather than the rule in the region as politicians in Cambodia, Myanmar/Burma, and Thailand who have lost at the polls have all refused to accept the results, while in Laos PDR there are no openly contested elections to select national leaders. Most consider a well-informed population and a free press to be integral parts of the foundation that is required for an efficient democracy to grow; however, throughout Southeast Asia, collusion between reporters and leaders of both public and private institutions is fairly common, limiting the quality of information available to voters on which to make decisions (Mangahas 2001). Although in the past Thailand was considered the most politically advanced of the nations in the region, bribery and the threat of going to jail for insulting the royal family, which is often used to stifle debate, are common, and thus limits the effectiveness of the media in playing its informational role in a democracy (Vatikiotis 2001). Both Laos PDR and Myanmar/Burma have some of the world’s most restrictive rules under which the media has to operate, while in Cambodia at the present, it would appear the press for the most part is allowed to openly criticize the existing government to a limited extent; however, this is a fairly recent development and is in no way an entrenched aspect of Khmer society. While it is hard to argue with the notion that culture has an influence on the political system found in a country, it is probably a good idea to refrain from attributing in whole the lack of democratic institutions in the region to a cultural context heavily influenced by Theravada Buddhism. Kamrava (1999: 23) explained:

The precise connection between culture and politics is even more complicated. Culture helps articulate personal and societal identity – itself a task of tremendous complexity – but it alone does not articulate politics. In fact, it is at best only one of the elements that go into constructing politics. Political leaders, themselves coming from specific cultural backgrounds, operate within and seek to further particular sets of values and cultural agendas. But to maintain that the larger framework within which they operate is informed overwhelmingly (or even largely) by culture is to overlook other potentially important forces such as economics, domestic and international politics, personal ambitions, and other similar dynamics with little or no cultural content.