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The spectacular economic growth in the Asia Pacific region has also given rise to tensions and conflicts within each society. In particular, authoritarian governments (which often legitimate themselves by the need for economic control) increasingly have had to confront the populist assertions of their citizens. It is a tension that has transcended economic ideology, having arisen non-capitalist and capitalist states alike. This unit examines political tensions in countries where a new generation of leaders has begun to interact with the aspirations of a more prosperous and self-confident middle class.


Traditional attitudes toward power and authority have a lasting influence, regardless of the pace of social and economic change. Even where a democratic government is strong, as in Japan, it operates in a far different manner than in Europe or the United States—and, in some ways, in a more effective manner. Increasingly, we have come to understand the extent to which democracy is not an Anglo-Saxon patent. Where democracy fights to be established, it must do battle on different grounds, among peoples who may value harmony as highly as justice. Thus, we find that some Asia-Pacific nations do not set a high priority on individualism or on an adversarial method of legal proceedings.


The example of South Korea is instructive since an authoritarian government confronted a democracy movement of greater societal participation and earlier on than most nations, partly as a result of its great economic successes. The Japanese occupation had lasted for nearly half a century. Korea was suddenly thrown onto its own resources. When a ruthless Stalinist system appeared in the North, the South was less likely to rely on anything but a powerful central authority as well. This was first personified by the elderly and dogmatic Syngman Rhee, who represented the traditional Korean preference for referring virtually all decisions to an authoritarian father figure. President Park Chung Hee played a similar role until his assassination. During his 18-year rule, he presided over Korea's industrialization.


A crisis grew in Korea's government under President Chung Doo Hwan until popular pressures even within the ruling Democratic Justice Party forced a Presidential election that became a pivotal event in modern Korean history. The tensions between past authoritarian approaches to governance in Korea, rationalized in part by calls for a disciplined, Confucian society, and the desire for a more open, democratic system, caused violent, open clashes with students as recorded in the video unit, The Fight for Democracy (to be added).


In Thailand, communist insurgencies were largely suppressed. Remarkably, there was no colonial legacy to overcome. If the Thais found themselves "drifting towards democracy" despite a series of military coups, they recently reached an impasse between the followers of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006 before he was ousted in a bloodless coup, and a military backed government.  In Indonesia under Suharto, the role of the military in maintaining stability was paramount. The gestures toward democracy seemed often like the posturings of the traditional wayang kulit shadow puppet plays until Suharto’s demise ushered in a new in democratic era. Malaysia walks a tightrope of ethnic division. Underneath its high-rise modernity, the city-state of Singapore has its own brand of tension between democracy and authoritarianism.


The factors that support or oppose democratic rule vary widely throughout the Asia Pacific region. They include the experience of colonial rule, the perceptions of internal and external threats, the dimensions of traditional political authority, the lofty apolitical role of a monarchy (in Thailand), shifting patron-client relationships (Philippines), and the a central Confucian authority in Korea.



After viewing the video and reading Chapter 8, you should have a basic understanding of the following concepts.

1. Asian efforts to achieve working democratic governments have resulted in systems which are adapted to Asian, rather than Anglo-American, perceptions of how democracy can function in their societies.

2. Post-WWII developments generated a variety of transitions to democratic forms of government within traditional frameworks of power and authority.

3. In many Asian societies, the maintenance of stability and order have often taken priority over democratic processes of power-sharing.

4. Democratization in South Korea has been complicated by the North-South division of the peninsula, but political liberalization has allowed a more open discussion of societal problems.

5. In Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Korea, democracy has begun to be exercised in varying degrees and forms.


KEY CONCEPTS AND NAMES (see Glossary below)

Alliance Party

Benigno Aquino

Corazon Aquino


King Bhumibol (Rama IX)


Chiang Ching-kuo

Chun Doo Hwan

Communal Politics

Crony Capitalism

Democratic Justice Party (DJP)


Guided Democracy


Kwangju Massacre

Lee Teng-hui

Mahathir Mohamad


Ferdinand Marcos


New Korea Democratic Party


Roh Tae Woo






1. How does democracy vary from country to country in Pacific Asia? Compare and contrast different countries’ experiences with democratic forms.

2. What traditional elements of governance were incorporated into the modem Indonesian state? How has that affected "democracy?"

3. What is "Limited Democracy?" What does it mean to Malaysia? Why was it incorporated into Malaysian politics?

4. Who was Ferdinand Marcos? In what manner did he rule?

5. Can we make any broad generalizations about how the colonial past has affected politics in Pacific Asia?

6. What is meant by "Guided Democracy?"

7. What political role has the military played in Thailand? In Indonesia? In South Korea? Compare and contrast.




Power, Authority,

and the Advent of Democracy

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