Has South-East Asia evolved into a modern, democratic region, or does its stability still rely on the strong-arm strategies of a 21st century take on "benevolent dictators"?
That question is thrown up by the deaths on October 26 of 78 Muslim demonstrators who were crammed by police into trucks so tightly that they suffocated. This is now the subject of a government investigation.
Thailand's Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, a police chief turned billionaire, had flown to the Muslim south of the country "to boost the morale" of the local authorities as 2,000 people gathered outside a police station to press for the release of six men charged with stealing guns from village defence volunteers.
The first response by Thaksin - whose Thai Rak Thai (Thai Love Thai) party is set to sweep back to power at an election due by February 13 - to the reports of scores of deaths, was: "This is typical. It's about bodies made weak from fasting [it is the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan]. Nobody hurt them."
Thailand annexed an ethnic Malay kingdom in 1902. The Muslims, who comprise up to 6 million people, 10 per cent, of predominantly Buddhist Thailand, live mainly in three provinces, Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, that formed part of this kingdom. Martial law was declared in January in these three provinces, which have not enjoyed the same economic upswing as booming central Thailand.
The government says that the rising unrest in the south is due to criminal gangs and separatists sheltering beneath the banners of Islam, while Thai Muslims warn of suppression aiding Islamist extremist recruiters.
The Arabic al-Jazeera website called the 78 deaths "yet another crime that underlines Bangkok's disregard for its Muslim minority".
But Thaksin is convinced - as indeed most of his fellow countrymen appear to be - that he has the solutions for this and Thailand's other problems.
He has pledged that the government will spend $US 24 billion to combat poverty and illicit drugs. There will be massive infrastructure spending, tax breaks for small business, calves (the scheme dubs them "cash cows") for every farming family, and gifts for each child born after next July.
His TRT and its coalition partners won a massive 364 of 500 seats in the parliament in January 2001. None of his 22 predecessor prime ministers completed a full term, none won a second consecutive election.
Thaksin is certainly breaking the mould. But is he breaking too many heads in the process?
One head in his sights appears to be that of the governor of the central bank, Pridiyathorn Devakula, after he revoked the reappointment of Viroj Nualkhair as president of the government-owned Krung Thai Bank.
This and other state banks are used to pumping out low-interest loans as a key component of "Thaksinomics," the prime minister's populist economic strategy.
Moves to circumscribe the independence of central banks are classic indicators that a country or a region is backing away from, not heading towards, modern, accountable governance.
And the more Thaksin is held up as the pre-eminent leader in South-East Asia - and even as the model for its future style of leadership - the greater the questions about the region's evolution and its ability to shrug off fully the failings that led to the 1997 Asian economic collapse.
Indonesia has also just elected a "strong man," a former general, as its leader - President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
South-East Asia's future path depends significantly on whether Thaksin and SBY compete for national and regional stature on toughness, or on improving governance. The emphasis, since 9/11/2001 and the Bali bombings of October 12 2002, given to the war on terror has renewed the currency of the "strong man." But big questions remain, as to the outcome when such a style of leadership is carried over to the other realms of public life beyond security, and especially to the economy.
Rowan Callick is Asia Pacific Editor of the Australian Financial Review.