Managed Stability or Democracy?

Giles Ungpakorn

Recently I had a conversation with a researcher associated with the British Foreign Ministry and I was surprised and shocked to hear him say: “Burma is the most democratic country in South-east Asia”. He went on to say that the worrying thing about Burma was that Aung San Suu Kyi might be too inflexible to work with the military.

Now, as far as I am concerned, The Philippines and Indonesia are by far the most democratic countries in the region, despite their flaws. And let us face it, Britain and the United States do not exactly have perfect democracies. As far as Burma is concerned, it has a constitution which allows for long-term military domination of politics and the most worrying thing about Suu Kyi is that she has completely compromised with the military, has Burman nationalistic and Islamophobic ideas, and that she is a neo-liberal. [See ]

So what accounts for this absurd idea about Burma?

The views about democratisation among mainstream officials and politicians close to Western governments are heavily influenced by right-wing “comparative politics” theories associated with academics like Guillermo O’Donnell. For these people, democratic transition is all about the behaviour of elite factions and how they manage a stable transition to so-called democracy. In fact they are not really interested in freedom, democratic rights and social justice for the majority of the population. They are blind to and terrified of the prospect of mass movements of the working class and the poor rising up to overthrow authoritarian regimes.

Guillermo O'Donnell
Guillermo O’Donnell

Reading through political science literature about democratic transitions in the days before the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia or before the overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines, you can see that the idea that these dictators might be overthrown by mass movements from below is totally lacking. But this is in fact, exactly what happened. The same can be said of the Arab Spring uprisings and uprisings against the military in Thailand in 1973 and 1992. And the most important social force which can push forward and develop democratisation in all these countries, including Thailand, remains mass movements of workers and the poor.

Even when the right-wing theorists are forced to confront reality that a regime has been overthrown by a mass movement, they try to re-write history to say that it was a movement of the middle-classes.

In other words, right-wing “comparative politics” ideas look down on workers and the poor and see the elites and the middle-classes as the only people who can bring about progress in democracy. This is a view which fits exactly with views expressed in Thailand by the yellow shirt P.A.D., Sutep’s anti-democratic mobs, the military junta and those idiots responsible for drafting constitutions and anti-reform agendas for the military.

Pit Pongsawat
Pit Pongsawat

Unfortunately, my friend and Chulalongkorn University political scientist, Pit Pongsawat, also seems to go along with this right-wing “comparative politics” nonsense. Recently he suggested that we need to find ways to open a dialogue with the military in order to bring about democratisation. But such “democratisation” will only be the “Managed Stability”, much loved by the right-wing. The present Burmese military dominated half democracy is a clear example of the end product of such ideas.


The lesson from this is that it would be a waste of time to believe that any foreign governments, especially those in the West, would ever be an important factor in bringing about democracy in Thailand. For them, their only interest is being able to conduct business with Thailand. They want to be able to “keep the lines open” to talk to the elites and the military and there are voices raised in British government circles critical of the mildly democratic principles of the out-going British Ambassador to Bangkok for “isolating” Britain from the military junta.

No doubt the United States government is also trying to tread a fine line between being seen as anti-dictatorship and pushing the Thai junta into the arms of the Chinese.


As we have stated many times in this blog, democracy, freedom and social justice will only be achieved through the building of mass social movements from below.