Fri, Sep 22, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Far from Bangkok, close to Manila

Taiwan's democratic system is far from perfect, but it could be much worse, as the coup d'etat in Thailand demonstrates. Yet the Thai coup illustrates two salient points that Taiwanese should bear in mind -- one positive, and one negative.

First, the positive: Taiwanese military leaders were quick to assure the public that, despite the deep political divisions here and the current protests against the president, the military had no intention of directly intervening in political affairs.

There is every reason to believe this is true. If the military had wanted to impose its will on the people, then surely it would have done so in 2000, when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lost power, or in 2004, when the results of the presidential election were so bitterly contested.

Taiwan's military gets a lot of flak from a variety of quarters. Local politicians regularly accuse it of partisanship. Think tank ideologues in the US -- who usually know much about the intricacies of Washington, but little about the realities on the ground in Taipei -- continually question the commitment of Taiwan's armed forces to defending their country.

But what all of these critics ignore are the huge strides that have been made in turning Taiwan's military into a professional fighting force that serves the nation, and not just the KMT.

There is no denying that the military and the KMT were once joined at the hip. It is also beyond doubt that much of the military leadership is sympathetic to the pan-blue camp. But, with rare exceptions, senior officers have kept their political views to themselves, and have refrained from political activism.

Keeping the military under firm civilian control is key to maintaining a viable democratic system, a point the Ministry of National Defense seems to understand. It should be applauded for doing so.

But the negative point is also important: One of the telling results of the coup in Thailand is the fact that it has had a limited impact on the Thai economy. Markets fluctuated slightly, while the Thai baht recovered much of the ground it lost after initial news of the coup. Although tourism -- one of Thailand's key industries -- may suffer in the short term, the peaceful nature of the coup means that tourists have little reason to stay away.

This illustrates a reality that Taiwanese would do well to note: The world -- especially the business world -- cares very little about democracy as a principle. Stability is what matters. Many commentators said a repeat of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis was far more worrisome than a mere coup.

The fact that people can watch a military junta topple a democratically elected government with such equanimity is a lesson that should not be lost on other struggling democracies. Democracy can only be guaranteed if people and their leaders are firmly committed to the development of their institutions.

And in Taiwan, few people are truly upset when contemplating the campaign to oust the president.

Anyone who steps back from immediate partisan emotions can recognize that using a Philippines-style "People Power" movement to oust an elected leader is a step backwards for Taiwan. "People Power" may be a viable option for overthrowing a dictatorship. But should it be used to supplant established democratic institutions?

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