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By Peter Hartcher
May 12, 2009
Thailand likes to call itself The Land of Smiles. And for a while after the advent of democracy in 1992 this seemed to be unusually accurate for an official slogan.
Democracy seemed to flourish. Even during the traumatic Asian economic crisis of 1997 the generals stayed in their barracks. Growth quickly returned. The tourists flooded in. Foreign investors smiled on the Thais, who returned the favour.
In the parallel universe known as Indonesia, the picture was more ominous. Its slogan, Unity in Diversity, seemed an exercise in dark sarcasm. Diversity was hammered into frightened unity by its military dictator, Soeharto. When the Asian crisis forced Soeharto out of power in 1998 the outlook only seemed to darken.
A succession of simpletons and underperformers took the presidency. The economy was moribund. Islam woke from its long slumber under Soeharto and seemed to be asserting itself. Its diversity would now be repressed by the Muslim majority, it appeared.
Indonesia's prospects seemed to go from bad to worse. Terrorists bombed tourists in the peaceful holiday destination of Bali. The Petri dish of Indonesian Islam seemed to be breeding a newly virulent form of violent extremism. Investors gave the country a wide berth.
If Thailand seemed to represent sunrise in South-East Asia, Indonesia appeared to be the region's nightfall.
Today we see an extraordinary role reversal. Thailand is now a wreck, suffering a constitutional crisis, emergency rule and an investment strike.
As the Bangkok Post put it last month: "How could the Rice Bowl of Asia, a trade and transport hub of the Greater Mekong sub-region, an erstwhile Asian Tiger and 'Amazing Thailand' in tourism terms … come dangerously close to becoming a failed state?"
Indonesia, on the other hand, is stable and tolerant under a mature and clean president, with better growth prospects than any of the states in the region. The US think tank Freedom House has designated Indonesia for the first time as the only fully free and democratic country in South-East Asia.
As Andrew MacIntyre and Douglas Ramage put it in a paper for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute: "Indonesia in 2008 is a stable, competitive electoral democracy, with a highly decentralised system of governance, achieving solid rates of economic growth, under competent national leadership, and playing a constructive role in the regional and broader international community."
While Indonesia glowed with the success of hosting 189 nations' representatives at the Bali climate change conference in December 2007, Thailand was humiliated last month when it had to abort a summit of 16 national leaders for the East Asian summit.
With the Thai Army rendered impotent by surging red-shirted protesters in Pattaya, the leaders of China and Japan were evacuated by helicopter, and other leaders' planes turned around in midair. It was a shocking blow to Thai credibility, unable to host a meeting, incapable of protecting world leaders on its soil.
Consider the same point and counterpoint last weekend.
While about 20,000 red-shirted protesters took to the streets of Bangkok to demonstrate against the violently repressive tactics of the unelected government, Indonesia announced the results of its peaceful parliamentary elections.
What happened? How did these two key states of South-East Asia come to trade places so dramatically?
Thailand's trajectory changed with the decision to mount an unconstitutional coup against the prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, first elected in 2001 and resoundingly re-elected in 2005.
The billionaire businessman was a polarising leader. He was wildly popular with the rural poor and the working class, but bitterly opposed by the urban elites and the army.
The decision to send the army to remove him came from the royal palace.
The last time the king had intervened decisively in politics was to end a violent constitutional crisis. This time he provoked one.
The army and the palace imposed an unelected regime on the country, promising future elections. But Thaksin's supporters wage an unending war of civil disobedience. Thaksin himself, running from a corruption charge, continues to foment protest from abroad. Thai analysts say it is hard to see any resolution. The two sets of opposing forces are roughly equal, and an election would be unlikely to solve the stand-off, they say.
Indonesia's fortunes pivoted on the election of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, known universally in Indonesia as SBY. The former general has proved to be wise as well as popular since taking power in 2004. He is pro-business and pro-West, and also forcefully anti-terrorism and anti-corruption. Indeed, he has allowed the prosecution of his own brother-in-law on corruption charges.
Islamic political parties have moderated, not radicalised.
Indonesia now has a vibrant free press and a judiciary that is uneven but improving. Democracy has become solidly legitimised - generals and muftis alike compete for power at the ballot box, not in the streets. He is the easy favourite for the two-step presidential election due in July with a run-off in September, if required.
The region is suffering from the global financial crisis. But while the Asian Development Bank forecasts that Thai economic growth will fall from 2.6 per cent last year to minus 2 per cent this year, it expects Indonesia to suffer more mildly, slowing from 6.1 per cent to 3.6 per cent.
The essential difference is that Indonesian power elites universally respect the legitimising power of democracy. The Thais have not. And the leading source of anti-democratic arrogance in Thailand has proved to be the king. So Indonesia has emerged as a model state, a living rebuttal of the notion that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Its diversity has unified behind democracy. Thailand is turning into just another sad, broken autocracy. The smile has become a grimace.
Peter Hartcher is the Herald's international editor