Asia’s Democratic Drama

GENEVA – Asia’s political spectrum ranges from the brutal despotism of North Korea to the enlightened constitutional monarchy of Bhutan (so enlightened that it developed Gross National Happiness as an alternative measure to Gross Domestic Product), with many shades in between. But the old charge that Asia is ill-suited for Western-style democracy is being leveled again. Are the skeptics right?

In South and East Asia, democracies outnumber dictatorships by 17 to six. But democracies are facing turbulent times. Thailand’s political impasse, amid massive anti-democracy demonstrations, has hit world headlines, and elections have also been violently contested in Bangladesh. There have been widespread human-rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Cambodians have suffered a brutal political clampdown. And political life in the world’s largest democracy, India, is raucous and unruly.

Nonetheless, the notion of democratic exclusivity is both wrong and historically short-sighted. Although almost all Western countries are currently democracies, this has only been the case since the 1990’s. Just a half-century earlier, one could count the number of Western democracies on one’s fingers. And even these were imperfect: using the most basic democratic yardstick – universal suffrage – the United States could not be seen as truly democratic until the civil-rights victories of the 1960’s.

Although Britain was a beacon of democracy in the twentieth century, it did not extend this principle to an empire that held sway over more people and territory than any previous world power. It suppressed independence movements in India and across the Middle East and Africa (though many of these movements’ members willingly fought for Britain during both World Wars).