A popular development story in Asia features Myanmar, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand. Back in 1960, their economic bases were roughly on par, their development prospects uncertain. Mixed fortunes awaited them as they scaled contrasting trajectories owing to a combination of leadership, economic planning, external challenges and varying luck. More than five decades on, they have ended up in different destinations that are instructive for struggling democracies in the region and elsewhere.
South Korea was the least likely to succeed in 1960. It had gone through a bitter civil war, became divided between north and south, was ravaged by poverty with dim prospects for economic success. Thanks to its alliance with the United States and the constant threat of attack from the North, South Korean elites squabbled only up to a point and relented under military dictatorships, first led by army strongman Park Chung-hee.
Like Thailand at that time, South Korea’s army delegated economic management to policy technocrats, insulating them from the cut-and-thrust of politics. It was not a smooth ride but South Korea’s macro-economy surged and brought with it bottom-up pressure for political liberalisation. The ruling elites resisted but eventually succumbed to pro-democracy forces. The point of no return for South Korean democracy was in 1987 when pro-democracy demonstrators triumphed in the streets. Democracy in South Korea has since consolidated, crossing its own Rubicon where a military coup is neither viable nor considered. Seoul still sees regular street protests, especially by strong labour unions, but they are confronted by almost an equal number of policemen. And the protesters typically go home after making their point.
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