IN EVERY PRESIDENCY crises arise in parts of the world that received no attention whatsoever during the campaign season. Two seemingly unrelated events in the past few days suggest that the next president may have to focus sooner rather than later on a corner of South Asia that didn't figure in this year's debates.
The first event was the apparent suffocation of 78 Muslim detainees in custody in Thailand last Monday. The Post published a photograph of the detainees before their fatal truck voyage, in which they are shirtless, faces to pavement, hands bound behind them -- disturbing as an image and horrifying in what it foretells. The story behind the deaths is disturbing, too. Thailand for decades has been one of the stronger democracies in the region, but its current strongman prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is leading the nation backward. He has strong-armed the media, intimidated opponents and sanctioned massive extrajudicial killings of supposed drug dealers.
Now he is inflaming Muslim separatism in southern Thailand with brutal repression. His first response to the deaths in custody was that the men may have been "weak" from fasting in observance of Ramadan. This kind of response will incite extremism throughout southeast Asia. Yet President Bush has welcomed Mr. Thaksin as an ally in the war on terrorism.
A few days earlier in Burma, a kind of silent coup took place in which the prime minister, Gen. Khin Nyunt, was placed under house arrest by the No. 1 ruling general, Than Shwe. On one level, the lack of global response is understandable; all the generals in the Burma junta are corrupt, repressive and dishonorable. But the deposed prime minister had been put forward by the regime as its reasonable face, a compromiser who promised a "road map" to democracy and a dialogue with Burma's imprisoned democrats. Now even the pretense is gone.
Unlike Thailand, Burma has not been a democracy. But it did have one free election; its people voted overwhelmingly in 1990 for a courageous woman named Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. The generals annulled the reelection, and today she is under house arrest, with hundreds of her supporters in prison. Some of Burma's neighbors have chosen to hope that "engagement" with Burma's dictators would persuade them to ease the repression; Japan has offered aid to the regime; U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has pursued a dialogue. Now all of them must acknowledge that engagement has failed; aid rewards bad behavior; dialogue has been fruitless. The Security Council should reengage; India, a democracy, should be asked why it is giving succor to a repulsive regime.
The governments in Thailand and Burma are following paths that not only grind down their own people but threaten the stability of a wider region. The U.S. president-elect will have to pay attention.