In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Asia’s Progress
  • Satu P. Limaye (bio)
Pacific Asia In Quest Of Democracy By Roland Rich. Lynne Rienner, 2007. 330 Pp.

The uncertainty that swirls about democracy’s prospects is nowhere more pronounced than in Asia, our planet’s most populous region. The good news is inspiring: India’s improbable democracy persists— contrary to expectation and theory; Japan’s seems to be evolving, as a tentative two-party system emerges; Indonesia’s democratic transition is going surprisingly well; and the “third-wave” democracies of the Republic of Korea and Taiwan hum down the path of consolidation. The bad news, however, is truly awful. The brutal military junta in Burma shows few signs of willingness to ease its grip on power—even in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe such as that wrought by the recent cyclone. And North Korea’s totalitarian regime, based on a weird mix of militarism and the creepy cult of the Kim family, survives on the backs of that country’s people. In China, one-party control remains tight amid economic vibrancy and a more open society than China has seen at any time since the communists took power six decades ago.

But it is the recurring fluidity of shifts from nondemocracy to democracy and back again that presents the most intriguing challenges to democratic theory and practice in this region. In Pakistan, recent turmoil and elections showed that civil society is strengthening and that feudalism and Islamism may not have a lock on the country’s future. In Thailand, which had a military coup in September 2006, a new elected government is now in place, but so are most of the old players and challenges. In Malaysia, unprecedented protests in late 2007 were followed in March [End Page 169] 2008 by a remarkable election in which an opposition coalition won control over five of the country’s thirteen states and denied the longruling National Front coalition its accustomed two-thirds parliamentary majority. In the Philippines, a boisterous civil society tries to keep elections clean while the country contends against threats from would-be military putschists and Islamist insurgents. In Nepal, Maoists who long staged an armed insurgency have come to power by the ballot and now seek to run a coalition government and end the monarchy. Bangladesh’s military-backed interim government has announced plans to hold elections before the end of 2008. And in the region’s newest state, Timor Leste, the Economist’s uncharacteristically sentimental speculation that “Southeast Asia’s youngest nation may yet carry forward the region’s hopes for democracy” appears to have been quite off.

The sheer diversity and unpredictability of democratic development in Asia provides ample scope for any democracy activist or scholar. In Roland Rich, one is fortunate to have both. The former executive director of the Centre for Democratic Institutions at the Australian National University, the current executive director of the United Nations Democracy Fund, and a veteran Australian diplomat, Rich is amply qualified for the task of assessing democracy’s prospects in what he terms “Pacific Asia.”

In an early chapter, entitled “Charting Pacific Asia,” Rich seeks to map the area by geography, civilization, regional institutions, and even “imagination”; in so doing, he by most criteria excludes India and the rest of South Asia from the region. The rest of the book then largely focuses on the story (or continuing travails) of democratic consolidation in five countries: Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. This choice of countries makes sense if the focus is on the more recent attempts at democratic consolidation, but Rich is also concerned with two other basic questions: “Does consolidation of democracy require a civilizational consensus? And if so, is a civilizational consensus in favor of democracy forming in Pacific Asia?” (p. 19). If these are the “big questions,” however, the choice of the five countries is less compelling; even taken together, they may not be regional bellwethers. It might well be the case, after all, that India and Japan, Asia’s two long-established democracies, are more important to democratic prospects in the region than the five countries that Rich has chosen to discuss. Although the five make for compelling...