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«Forthcoming, Security Studies 25:4 (2016) While the existing literature emphasizes that elites often have incentives to pander to nationalist ...»

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Moreover, Southeast Asia offers rich variety in regime types, including states in various stages of The most common regime type metrics support this classification. Between 2003 and 2013, Vietnam had the most autocratic Polity IV score (-7 throughout) and lowest aggregate Freedom House (FH) score for political rights and civil liberties (ranging from 7 to 11). Cambodia was next (Polity=2; FH=15-17), and the Philippines was the most consistently democratic (Polity=8; FH =28-36). Thailand’s scores dropped sharply after the 2006 coup (Polity=9 to -5; FH=38 to 18) before returning to moderately democratic scores from 2008-2013 (Polity=4-7;


This is the universe of significant nationalist protests in these states concerning interstate disputes from 2003-2014. We do not discuss anti-American protests in the Philippines, which focus on bilateral cooperation rather than a dispute, but they support our argument that democratic governments routinely permit protests and usually are not compelled to take hardline policy positions as a result (as evidenced by strengthening U.S.-Philippine defense ties).

nation-building and democratization, which represent “most likely” cases for the argument that legitimacy-seeking leaders will foment nationalism to gain public support and embroil their states in international conflict. If that phenomenon occurs widely, we should expect to find evidence of it in Southeast Asia. Conversely, a finding that even legitimacy-seeking Southeast Asian leaders frequently seek to repress nationalist protests would provide strong evidence supporting our claim that leaders often regard popular nationalism as a threat, not just an opportunity.

Although China features prominently in our discussion of the South China Sea disputes, it does not constitute one of our cases, because no significant efforts to mobilize anti-Vietnamese or anti-Philippine public protests have occurred in China in recent years. When Chinese citizens have spewed nationalist invective at Hanoi or Manila, they have done so primarily through the internet. Chinese nationalists have focused their public demonstrations against Japan and other powers, and recent academic studies have examined these in depth. 45 This paper moves beyond the case of China to explore how other governments respond to nationalist protests and their effect on interstate disputes.

Our cases span four major regime types. Vietnam is autocratic, ruled by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), which provides public goods for economic growth while denying political rights that would facilitate opposition challenges. 46 Cambodia has an electoral See Weiss, Powerful Patriots; and James Reilly, Strong Society, Smart State: The Rise of Public Opinion in China's Japan Policy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

Mary Gallagher and Jonathan K. Hanson, “Authoritarian Survival, Resilience, and the Selectorate Theory,” ed. Martin Dimitrov, Why Communism Didn’t Collapse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 185-204. Elected National Assembly members choose the president, prime minister, and cabinet, but real power lies in the CPV Central Committee and Politburo, and opposition groups like the pro-democracy Viet Tan network are authoritarian regime, as regular elections occur within a system dominated by strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen and the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The CPP faces few constraints from a weak judiciary, National Assembly, and CPP-dominated bureaucracy and has used violence and intimidation to weaken opposition parties, 47 winning national elections by large margins in 2003 and 2008 before a stronger-than-expected opposition showing began eroding its lead in 2013.

Thailand has many democratic features, including multiple political parties, regular elections, and relatively well-developed judicial, legislative, and bureaucratic checks on executive power. However, numerous military coups have punctuated its slow process of democratization, 48 including a 2006 coup followed by military rule until early 2008. During the period relevant for our protest observations, between 2008 and the most recent coup in May 2014, Thailand was best characterized as a weakly institutionalized democracy. By contrast, the Philippines is best classified as an established democracy. Governance problems abound, including the excessive power of landed elites, “crony capitalism” and corruption, and occasional repression of political dissent. 49 Nevertheless, since the 1986 “People Power” protests and end of banned and repressed. See, e.g., “Human rights activist detained in Vietnam on ‘terrorist’ charge,” CNN, 30 April 2012.

See Duncan McCargo, “Cambodia: Getting Away with Authoritarianism?” Journal of Democracy 16, no.

4 (October 2005): 98-112; Kheang Un, “Cambodia: Moving Away from Democracy?” International Political Science Review 32, no. 5 (2011): 546-62.

Nicholas Farrelly, “Why democracy struggles: Thailand’s elite coup culture,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 67, no. 3 (2013): 281-96.

See Björn Dressel, “The Philippines: How Much Real Democracy?” International Political Science Review 32, no. 5 (2011): 529-45.

Ferdinand Marcos’s military regime, democracy has grown relatively deep roots with robust opposition parties, regular elections, significant judicial and legislative checks and balances, an active press, and strong norms of freedom of assembly and expression. 50 We expect to observe significant variation across and within our country cases. Our analysis suggests that Vietnam’s government will try to repress nationalist protests most consistently—especially when the risk of domestic opposition mobilization appears—but may tolerate protests on occasion to signal resolve or garner international attention. We expect the Cambodian government to foment or permit nationalist protests with somewhat greater frequency, especially when the CPP faces substantial electoral competition. We expect that the Thai government will usually be unable or unwilling to subdue nationalist demonstrations, even when they pose serious political threats. We seldom anticipate repression in the Philippines.

We also expect to observe variation in the international effects of nationalist protests. Our first hypothesis suggests that the Thai government is most likely to take aggressive or uncompromising action abroad to placate nationalist protesters. 51 Our second hypothesis implies that foreign rivals are most likely to see Thailand as credibly constrained by nationalist protests but to discount protests in Vietnam and Cambodia—believing they can be easily subdued—and view Philippine demonstrations as relatively weak constraints on foreign policy. Our final See Donald K. Emmerson, “Minding the Gap between Democracy and Governance,” Journal of Democracy 23, no. 2 (April 2012): 65-68. Huge public demonstrations helped force President Joseph Estrada to resign in 2001, but even that controversial transfer of power was peaceful. See Carl H. Landé, “The return of ‘People Power’ in the Philippines,” Journal of Democracy 12, no. 2 (April 2001): 88-102.

Absent very large protests threatening the ouster of incumbent elites, we expect nationalist protests in the Philippines to be relatively unlikely to compel the government to take belligerent acts abroad, but since some past protests have had major political impacts in the Philippines, it presents a relatively “tough case” for our argument.

hypothesis leads us to expect that foreign rivals will be more likely to compromise in the face of protest-driven escalation by Thailand than the other three countries.


Situated between the autocratic and democratic poles of the spectrum, the cases of Thailand and Cambodia help illustrate that nationalist protests are particularly likely to affect interstate conflict when embattled incumbents foment or allow nationalist protests. In Thailand’s weakly institutionalized democracy, leaders have been pressured by large-scale protests in 2008, 2010-11, and 2013 to adopt more aggressive and uncompromising foreign policies than they would have otherwise chosen. At the same time, large protests have led foreign observers to regard the Thai government as credibly constrained, helping Thailand win some modest concessions from Cambodia.

In Cambodia’s electoral authoritarian regime, when leaders have felt threatened by an increasingly viable electoral opposition, they have tolerated or even encouraged nationalist demonstrations. In 2003, anti-Thai demonstrations erupted into a spasm of violence that appeared to surprise CPP leaders and led to a Thai threat of armed intervention before the CPP brought them under control and defused the crisis. The CPP swiftly quelled anti-Thai demonstrations several years later, and it has tried to subdue anti-Vietnam protests embedded in larger anti-government opposition rallies since the 2013 national elections. The Cambodian case helps illustrate that while leaders may sometimes benefit by fanning the flames of popular nationalism, they are also eager to prevent protests from triggering or forcing unwanted escalation. It also illustrates that foreign observers are unlikely to view a government able to repress protests as credibly constrained. Cambodia’s protests have thus raised risks of conflict without winning concessions from its neighbors.

Nationalist Protests in Thailand Nationalist protests emerged in Thailand as the country’s politics crystallized around two feuding factions named for the colors they wear at frequent public protests—“red-shirts” loyal to the populist former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra against “yellow-shirts” associated with the traditional pillars of Thai politics, including Bangkok-based elites, military officers, and key figures in the Royal Palace. 52 After the military ousted Thaksin in 2006, red-shirts won a December 2007 election and returned to power. Soon thereafter, yellow-shirt protesters attacked the incumbent red-shirt government for failing to defend Thai sovereignty. Protesters again challenged the government in 2011 and 2013, pressuring incumbent leaders to adopt hardline policies, but with different international effects.


The protests concerned a dispute surrounding the temple of Preah Vihear near the ThaiCambodian frontier. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962 but did not clearly resolve the status of an adjacent 4.6 square kilometer strip of land. That strip’s significance to Thailand owes to a sense of historical injustice, as Thai nationalists believe

See Thitinan Pongsudhirak, “Thailand since the Coup,” Journal of Democracy 19, no. 4 (October 2008):

140-53; and James Ockey, “Thailand in 2006: Retreat to Military Rule,” Asian Survey 47, no. 1 (January/February 2007): 133-40.

the temple rightly belongs to Thailand pursuant to a 1904 Franco-Siamese treaty. 53 In 2001, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen requested that UNESCO inscribe the temple on the World Heritage List, but Thailand objected. After unsuccessful bilateral negotiations, Cambodia again requested inscription in 2007. Thailand again demurred, but after further talks and Cambodian revision of its application to acknowledge the disputed adjacent strip of land, the two sides signed a June 2008 joint communiqué in which Thailand agreed to support Cambodia’s bid.

Yellow-shirts responded by organizing a small nationalist rally near the temple and large street protests in Bangkok. They were led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD)—a powerful yellow-shirt group backed by conservative urban elites with strong ties to the media, the military, and the Royal Palace—which had demonstrated since May against the red-shirt government of Prime Minister Samak Sundravej. The PAD accused Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama of treason and of “selling the country” to Cambodia, 54 and an estimated 10,000 protesters moved to the streets of Bangkok. 55 Similar yellow-shirt protests had precipitated the 2006 military coup against Thaksin, and as protesters marched on Government House, calling Samak a puppet for Thaksin and demanding his resignation, concerns mounted See John D. Ciorciari, “International Decisions: Request for Interpretation of the Judgment of 15 June 1962 in the Case Concerning the Temple of Preah Vihear (Cambodia v. Thailand),” American Journal of International Law 108, no. 2 (April 2014): 288-95.

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