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Behind Pattern of Global Unrest, a Middle Class in Revolt

by Joshua Kurlantzick
February 20, 2014

Policemen hold their weapons ready as they pull back during clashes with anti-government protesters near the Government House in Bangkok on February 18, 2014. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters) Policemen hold their weapons ready as they pull back during clashes with anti-government protesters near the Government House in Bangkok on February 18, 2014. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)


For months now, protesters have gathered in the capitals of many developing nations—Turkey, Ukraine, Thailand, Venezuela, Malaysia, and Cambodia, among others—in demonstrations united by some key features. In nearly all of these places, protesters are pushing to oust presidents or prime ministers they claim are venal, authoritarian, and unresponsive to popular opinion. Nearly all of these governments, no matter how corrupt, brutal, and autocratic, actually won elections in relatively free polls. And in nearly all of these countries the vast majority of demonstrators hail from cosmopolitan areas: Kiev, Bangkok, Caracas, Istanbul, and other cities. The streets seem to be filled with very people one might expect to support democracy rather than put more nails in its coffin.

Why are these demonstrations exploding now, when protesters in places like Thailand have been organizing against their governments for months if not years? For one, these governments have shored up their backing from important international players, which may make them feel more secure in cracking down. In Ukraine’s case, the government has been bolstered by billions in assistance from Russia. In Thailand and Malaysia, the governments have benefited from the tacit support of the United States, which has expressed support for the results of democratic processes. And hard-liners in the police in some of these nations have for weeks called for tougher tactics. In Thailand, for example, where the government has until now mostly let protesters take over and shut down ministries, businesses, and intersections, mid-level police officers have pushed senior commanders to take more aggressive measures—and those measures are now being carried out.

Protesters also have become more indebted to hard-liners in their camps and thus more willing to use violence. In Ukraine, as the number of protesters has dwindled somewhat over the past two months, the rump group included the hardest-core elements willing to wait out a brutal winter. In Thailand, the size of the demonstrations has fallen by more than half since early January, but the remaining protesters apparently include shadowy instigators armed with assault rifles concealed in sacks and grenades. Some hard-line Thai anti-government activists also seem to believe that if they can provoke major bloodshed in Bangkok, the military will be forced to step in and carry out yet another in Thailand’s long history of coups.

To read more of my analysis of why these protests are coming to a head this week, read the whole article here.


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  • Posted by Pete

    In terms of the political crisis in Thailand, does the current situation further support the notion of “Asian Values”? The strange(to a westerner) juxtaposition of the middle class calling for less democracy seems odd, but perhaps it makes sense in SE Asia. Look how non-democratic regimes successfully contributed to economic growth in Indonesia/Malaysia and especially Singapore. Perhaps democracy is really not the ideal solution where education has not reached the periphery of the state. Ideal policy outcomes in democratic societies hinges on informed/educated electoral bodies. This does not exist in Thailand at the moment.

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