A minor insight into Asian politics

One of the most interesting things about traveling to a faraway land is that you are exposed to a completely different set of media outlets and so you see and hear things from both a different perspective and with emphasis on the news from wherever you are instead of the US.

We are experiencing a somewhat extreme version of this phenomena. Our house has a satellite dish, but our landlady selected the equivalent of basic service and wee are not sufficiently motivated to see if we can get the package upgradaed. This means that virtually all the channels we get are in Sinhala (probably some are in Tamil, we can not yet hear the difference). The only English language news channel in the package is Aljazeera. Over-the-air, we get an English language channel called Artv, pronounced “art-tv”. Artv presents Sri Lankan and Western shows drawn from several sources. There is an evening hour of CNN followed by a Sri Lankan business report. After that there might be CSI New York or an episode of Everyone Loves Raymond. On Friday nights, there is a movie at 9PM, but the movies selected are always sappy and less than B grade. Also, the reception seems to get worse as the show goes on. Between the sappiness and the poor reception, we have not finished more than one Friday night movie. However, Kris has figured out how to make popcorn, so at least the beginning of the movie is an excuse to emulate our typical Friday night in Mount Vernon.

Aljazeera has changed amazingly. I remember its early years when Aljazeera had a running battle with the US government during the first Gulf War. So much so that there was what looked very much like a US airstrike on an Aljazeera reporting team. US government spokesmen complained that Aljazeera was radical and biased against the US. Today, Aljazeera is as slickly produced as CNN. As one might expect from a news channel based in the Mideast, there is a lot more news about events in the Mideast, Africa, and Asia than one sees on the nightly news in the US. Their coverage of the attacks on Mumbai and the US election seemed to me as fair and balanced as any US network. If there is a slant, it is the tendency to relate events to the peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Mideast. No crime in that. I wonder if, in fact, Aljazeera has an editorial viewpoint corresponding to the moderate Muslim world, the voice that the West has long sought to bring out to oppose the call to nihilism of the radical Muslims.

To get to the point of the posting, I have been made aware of an interesting demographic issue in South and Southeast Asia which is probably also of relevance elsewhere. In most of the countries in this part of the world, the majority of people live on farms. According to www.nationmaster.com, in 2005, in the US, 19% of people live in rural areas, in Sri Lanka that number is 85%, and in Thailand the number is 68%. Each of these three countries is a democracy. The demographic issue is then, what is the effect on the politics and policies of a democratic country when so many of its people are living in rural areas?

One might explore the question by imagining US national politics if the overall US demographics were represented by  the demographics of West Virginia (in 1990 the US state with the largest percentage of rural residents, 64%) and Mississippi (in 1990 the state with the next highest percentage of rural residents, 53%). (Statistics from the US census of 1990 as quoted on http://www.allcountries.com) Our country would be a very different place. The US overall has not had the same percentage of rural residents as Thailand does currently since 1890 and the same percentage as Sri Lanka has currently since 1850.

So one of the tensions in several democratic countries in this region is that the majority of the electorate has a very different sense of what is most important for the country than the minority of the electorate who live in the cities. Cities themselves have special issues, of course. But more than that, the cities are the centers where this “Asian Tiger” economic revolution is going on. And the national policies desired by the people and companies who want to ride this wave of economic prosperity are not the policies that are the main concerns of the majority.

What prompted this posting is the current situation in Thailand. From a distance, it may be difficult to tell the two sides apart. The government is a freely elected democratic government. The demonstrators are calling for more than the resignation of the current government. They know that if free elections are held, the current adminstration would likely be re-elected. So they are calling for a government by appointees, not government by democratically elected politicians. So, being advocates for democracy, the US should side with the government, right?

Maybe. Hard to argue against democracy, especially one where elections are internationally recognized as being pretty much free and fair. The demonstrators argue that the current government has “bought” the votes of the rural areas, but I see no prima fascia reason to believe that the rural voters are not voting for representatives of their own self interest. But it is the demonstrators who, if they achieve power, are much more likely to enact policies that would more clearly align themselves with the Western, free market, economic system and with Western policies more generally. If one believes that the Western economic system is more likely to create prosperity for all, that is if we really believe in the system we are trying to spread around the world, shouldn’t we be supporting (at least morally) the demonstrators?

As I said, this tension is not confined to Thailand and the urban/rural tension is not confined only to democracies. China has made great strides in modernization and competitiveness in the world market, but its farmers are having a very rough time and have been treated, in many cases, very badly. Protests in China these days are seldom about democratic rights in China, they are overwhelmingly farmers trying to get justice. While in Vietnam, our guide told us that the farmers were blocking economic reforms that would allow Vietnam to grow its economy even more quickly. In the past week, South Korean farmers demonstrated against the nearly completed US-South Korea free trade agreement. Somehow the Korean farmers are not pursuaded that there is justice in allowing Korean car manufacturers to compete with American car manufacturers while American farmers are allowed to compete with Korean farmers. It was not too long ago that Japanese farmers threatened violence in an attempt to halt the construction of Tokyo’s Narita airport.

Even the so-called developed countries are not immune to the rural-urban tension. The US often champions democracy, but we are really a republic. Two prominent anti-democratic institutions in the US are the Electoral College and the US Senate because not everyone is represented equally in these two institutions. Residents of states with smaller populations have a larger representation in each of these bodies, per capita. The existence of these two anti-democratic institutions is the only explanation for the continued existence of the anti-free market, health degrading, subsidies received by a subset of US farmers.

This rural-urban tension is going to be a very interesting issue to see play out. Is democracy always the best form of government? What are the preconditions necessary for democracy to be successful? Is true democracy in some countries antithetical to modernization and international cooperation?




  1. Kris said,

    December 1, 2008 at 8:57 pm

    The poliical situation in Thailand is not just rural/urban, but also has to do with the hereditary elite and their power to control national politics. And there is a different way of thinking about public service. Part of the Thai issue is about control behind the scenes. But I do not claim to be expert.

  2. Charles Santiapillai said,

    December 10, 2008 at 5:11 pm


    As Ayub Khan once said, for democracy to thrive, we need cold climate. In many Asian countries, we have “democracy” which is a farce. The strong do what they want, and the weak suffer what they must. Whenever you see any country calling itself, “Democratic, Socialist Banana Republic” you can be sure that it is neither democratic nor socialist. It is often bloody totalitarian. We need to be “human” before becoming democratic. What we do to the less fortunate in in the name of “democracy” in many countries is frightening. As Thomas Jefferson said, “I shudder to think that God is just”. Sometimes I feel that Asia needs a benign dictator to discipline us. But such a creature is as rare as teeth in hens. Cheers.

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