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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Compromise the least evil for rivals in Asia

(First published in Setopati as Thailand to Bangladesh: Worrisome trend for democracy in Asia)

If history is any guide the rival sides in the snowballing conflicts in Asia, both domestic and international,  have much more to lose from the continuing friction and stalemate. While Sino-Japanese rivalry risks upsetting the relatively stable international order, the boiling conflicts in Bangladesh and Thailand risk undermining the democratic institutions in each with lasting implications in each case.
With the outbreak of grisly conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, the year 2014 has been welcomed very bleakly in the African continent. As such, given the deadly combination of the legacy of an ugly and complicated colonial past and the present-day rush of every competing side to get the bigger pie of the mineral wealth, Africa is finding it rather difficult to dissociate itself from long running conflicts.

But having the overt wars in two nation states simultaneously is far worse than having a lingering presence of low-intensity conflicts in various parts. Keep this in the context of the continuing chaos in Mali, Somalia and host of other African countries and a very ominous picture of African continent emerges.

On comparison, Asia with some of the most prominent emerging powers in the world, has had a different historical trajectory so far in terms of overt conflicts. The major conflicts of the past decade and half in Afghanistan and Iraq, while definitely no less lethal in terms of death and destruction than the present day conflicts in Africa, were of a different nature for having been instigated by a foreign power. Troubling fact is that both in Afghanistan and Iraq today, the long running and currently deteriorating conflicts are increasingly being defined across the ethnic/sectarian faultlines. 

On a comprehensive outlook, however, host of troubling trends appear to be emerging in Asia outside Afghanistan and Iraq with closing of the year 2013. While the processes have by no means originated out of blue in the year, the rate of acceleration of the conflicts is worrisome. When the long term economic and social burdens of the present day confrontations, both international and domestic, are taken into account, one has to wonder whether the conflicting sides are even aware of the long term costs of the conflicts they are engaged in.

Among those that have received widespread coverage in media are the international conflicts with apparently snowballing Sino-Japanese confrontation at the center. Increasingly militant posturing of China as well as Japan in the face of so called American ‘pivot to Asia’ have variously manifested in the form of successive spats between the two sides with no amicable compromise visible in the foreseeable future.

With a narrow focus on the international conflicts and the geopolitical equations, however, anyone watching Asia risks missing a subtler but equally if not more important aspect of the confrontations limited within the political boundaries of the countries. 

The ongoing political stalemate and the increasingly dysfunctional democratic institutions in Bangladesh and Thailand are set to have long term repercussions for the societies in each of the country. That is rather unfortunate for the region which was rejoicing the triumph of democratic system in nation states with very tumultuous history like Pakistan.

It is fallacious to view the developments in Thailand with the success-failure spectacle for a particular political player including the Prime Minister. As such, the current spat between the opposition representing the urban middle class and the government representing the poorer rural masses seems to have originated from the PM Yingluck’s attempt to use the upper hand in the parliament to gradually rehabilitate her brother Thaksin who is in exile. The opposition seems to have caught this weak point of the Yingluck government to start a vehement protest thereby thrusting in its not-so-legitimate vested interests to the fore of political intercourse.

The conflict in Bangladesh similarly defies the oft repeated narrative of rivalry between the ‘battling Begums’.  Having utilized the strong mandate from the last general elections in historic acts like setting up the tribunal to try the war criminals of 1971, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inadvertently overused the very mandate in a process of marginalizing the opposition in the issue of conducting the general elections. Her such overreach gave the opposition a legitimate right to protest and given the political history of Bangladesh fraught with violence, both sides have been liberally using the coercive and violent measures in an attempt to outdo one another. The economy and the ordinary people, on the other hand suffer more with each passing moment of the turmoil.

It is not yet clear what exactly will follow in either of the country with the conflicting sides having increasingly divergent vision of the future. If history is any guide, both Yingluck and Hasina—despite with a very different background and motive—will have to swallow a bitter pill somewhere down the line and accommodate the opposition in one way or the other as the possibility of either of the leaders cementing a long term autocratic rule is next to nil. A forcible intervention of the armed forces in either country is going to result in substantial loss of ground for the incumbents.

What is common in the troubled atmosphere of both the countries is the factor of refusal of either side to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the rivals by refusing to accept even their legitimate arguments and rights and more unfortunately, the loss of faith of either or both sides on the democratic process. And thereby lurks a substantial danger to the overall march of the region to the era of better political accountability, participatory democracy and rule of law.

In Thailand, the opposition with a huge economic clout in the country seems to be patently losing patience on a system that lets the poor in the country (who form the majority) to dictate the country’s politics by electing the likes of Thaksin and Yingluck. Unable to directly say ‘let’s do away with this faulty system of majoritarianism’ they are viciously attacking the PM and her brother but that does little to obscure their motive.

In Bangladesh, today’s dilemma of the PM following the ‘farcical’ January 5 polls is as much the result of her lack of faith in truly participatory democracy as that of the strategic miscalculation. The opposition, on the other hand, has found itself in a draining and costly but rather paradoxically advantageous position as it is far easier to resort to arson and violence—purportedly to retaliate the repression by the government founded on election of questionable legitimacy—than to lure voters with a pledge to constructively uplift their livelihood. A not-so-distant past when the then Khaleda Zia had gone into similar autocratic overdrive makes it a mere change of player in the farcical repetition of history in Bangladesh.

That similar cycles have been repeated in the history is no solace. The process of maturation of the democratic system is supposed to avoid precisely this sort of conundrum when the ruling politicians forget both the past and the future thereby attempting to endlessly stretch the status quo and the opposition politicians fail to come to terms with the present thereby not recognizing even the legitimate interests of those in power.

The intensification of the stalemate in each of the countries with increasing aggression of the opposition in Thailand before proposed polls and 'do or die' post-poll protests of the opposition in Bangladesh portends a rather grim future for the people in those countries.

With frank descent of Iraq into chaos and lingering uncertainty about future of Afghanistan, these battered societies have little to rejoice as things stand today. And the unwelcome news from elsewhere in Asia make the overall prospects of Asian societies rather much grimmer than they would otherwise be.

What basically failed in both Afghanistan and Iraq after the US invasion was the foundation of truly democratic institutions with practical legitimacy on which a majority of people could place their faith. Both the countries are now paying a heavy price for that failure with a substantial danger of snowballing conflict and insurgency threatening to make each of these countries very entrenched basins of a contagious sectarian strife.

This is the exact lesson the leadership, both ruling and the opposition, in Thailand and Bangladesh are refusing to learn by deliberately undermining the democratic institutions that can potentially hold the society and the country together in times of crisis and turbulence. While already in a bind for their own myopic deeds in the past, the ruling power in Bangladesh and the opposition in Thailand are trying to dig hard in the hope of forcing the situation in their favor. The rivals in each country are retaliating with measures that they think best serve their interests.

As the experience elsewhere shows, either of the conflicting sides in either country may get the net benefit when the present version of showdown ends but continuing stalemate in each is detrimental to the long term interest of the society. Moreover, a hurried and unjust compromise at the end of costly showdown may set a bad precedent for any future confrontations.

The best way left for the rival sides in each countries--the ruling side in Bangladesh and the opposition in Thailand in particular--is to swallow the pill of compromise before it gets more bitter. If they can defend the rule of the game this time around, victory may be only a defeat away from them.

Interestingly, the very conclusion applies in case of international confrontations including in Sino-Japanese rivalry.  The earlier the working compromise, the better. If not the best, such a solution will be least of the staring evils.

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