ASEAN Southeast Asia’s youngest and poorest country, Timor-Leste, went to the polls on Saturday in the second round of parliamentary elections that will determine their next government as well as whether UN peacekeepers might be able to leave the country by year’s end.

According to the World Bank, nearly half of the country’s 1.1 million people live in poverty, making it not just Southeast Asia’s poorest, but one of the world’s poorest as well. The saddest part of that statistic is that Timor-Leste has a wealth of natural resources — specifically oil and natural gas — in its territory. Current estimates suggests that Dili has in excess of $10 billion in its reserve Petroleum Fund. So where does all that money go? Presumably, into the private bank accounts of the few individuals staked with the privileged of having to govern this mess. Perhaps the people will vote for a change in leadership.

Former Prime Minister and lightning rod for controversy Thaksin Shinawatra was democratically elected due to support from the poor, rural majority.

The vote has the potential to oust Prime Minster Xanana Gusmao of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction Party (CNRT). Gusmao, a former independence hero, has promised more public works projects as his main talking point on the stump. The opposition party, Fretilin, is a far-left entity promoting a populist message. Irrespective of how this vote turns out, if developments in other states in the region are any indication, it won’t be long before we see that the only thing democratic about this whole charade is the vote itself.

Democracy has been significantly rolled back in Southeast Asia over the past several years.

It’s a troubling trend but one which provides valuable insights and lessons into the difficulties of maintaining good governance in this part of the world.

Take Thailand for example. Joshua Kurlantzick, Southeast Asia fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, put together a succinct summary of the last decade of political upheaval in the Kingdom for Foreign Policy a few weeks ago: In the 1990s and early 2000s, Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, a towering series of spires looking toward the sky, located on the central avenue in the older part of the city, was a lively area for street life.

Outdoor vendors selling phat kii maw and other noodle dishes jostled for business with watermelon and jackfruit sellers while yuppies sat at the cafes and fast-food outlets surrounding the monument. Like the events that inspired the monument itself, which memorializes the end of absolute monarchy in the 1930s, Thailand’s political system seemed to be settling down.

Over the past six years, however, Democracy Monument and the area around it have come to look far different. As protests and riots have incessantly plagued the Thai capital, outbreaks of violence, and military repression of demonstrations, around the monument have, at times, left dead bodies lying just in front of it, blood splattered on the nearby pavement, and angry demonstrators armed with Molotov cocktails laying waste to the surrounding streets. An informal shrine has sprung up in a place where the brains of one protester were splashed after security forces shot him two years ago. The article proceeds to highlight the main actors of the drama as well as the specific turning points which have hurtled Thailand down the path that it has taken and is, indeed, still on.

Former Prime Minister and lightning rod for controversy Thaksin Shinawatra was democratically elected due to support from the poor, rural majority.

But students of politics know that simply having a free and fair vote does not a democracy make. There needs to be safeguards in place to deal with corruption. There needs to be transparency, good governance, an active and free media, and a vibrant civil society. All things which have had divaricating degrees of rollbacks both under Thaksin and the opposition (and ironically named) Democrat Party.


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The Democratic Rollback in Southeast Asia

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