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Asia's Rocky Road to Democracy

For the latest edition of The Edge Review, I take a look at the recent setbacks to democracy in Southeast Asia, from the perspective of a reporter who has been watching the democratic trends since the late 1980s.  Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

©The Edge Review

The rocky road to democracy

By Keith B. Richburg

“Just as democracy swept through Latin America and the former Communist-run states of Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War, East Asia, too, is in the midst of what many here are calling a slow but steady move toward more pluralism and openness.”

I wrote that rather optimistic prognosis way back in 1997 in an analysis piece for The Washington Post, after what looked like some pretty encouraging signs. The Asian economic crisis that year jolted the region’s old authoritarian order, and stirrings of a new democratic spring were everywhere. Or so it seemed.

In crisis-hit Thailand, popular pressure had forced the prime minister and former armed forces commander, Gen. Chavolit Yongchaiyudh, into a premature retirement, and a new “people’s constitution,” aimed at improving governance, was approved in a referendum. In Indonesia, longtime strongman Suharto was in his final months in office. In Malaysia, 50-year-old Anwar Ibrahim, then the deputy prime minister, was being hailed as the prototype of the “new breed” of Asian leader more democratic and inclusive than the tired old autocratic Mahathir Mohamad still peddling his “Asian values” trope.

It was easy then to cite the forces pushing East Asia in a more democratic direction: the declining political role of the region’s militaries; NGOs sprouting everywhere; new digital technologies empowering ordinary citizens; and countries forced to seek bailouts from the International Monetary Fund being pressed to accept stringent new conditions such as transparency, open markets and less cronyism.

I wouldn’t say I was wrong then – I’m the eternal optimist. But the march toward democracy in East Asia over the last decade and a half has been a lot slower, and far more unsteady, than I predicted.

Democracy may be well entrenched now in Latin America. Liberal democracy is a fixture of the former Communist states of Eastern Europe, now proud members of the European Union. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, regular elections and fixed terms for incumbents have emerged as the rule, with coups now the exception. But parts of Asia – particularly Southeast Asia – have proven more impervious to democracy than I and many other analysts ever imagined.

That’s not just my impression. A research study on electoral integrity released earlier this year by Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government found Southeast Asia the “weakest region” worldwide. It explained: “This includes Malaysia, due to its district boundaries and electoral laws, and Cambodia, with concerns about voter registration, the compilation of results, and the independence of electoral authorities. Recent electoral protests and instability in Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia vividly illustrate these challenges.” And that study came out before Thailand’s military power grab.

Consider also the 2014 rankings by Freedom House, the US-based pro-democracy watchdog group. It ranks half of the 10 ASEAN countries as “not free” — Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. The remaining five are only “partly free,” while Indonesia and Malaysia both get downward arrows indicating the trend is in the wrong direction.

In Indonesia, there’s concern over the rollback in freedom for civil society groups, and, more recently, the indefensible parliamentary vote to end elections for mayors and governors and have them appointed instead. This serious setback to democracy was orchestrated by reactionary elements of the old Suharto dictatorship led by none other than Prabowo Subianto, the defeated presidential candidate and former Kopassus special forces commander notoriously seen as a serial human rights abuser.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak — returning to power after a tainted, gerrymandered “election” last year — has dropped all pretense of being a reformer and has resorted to getting his political opponents and critics jailed. The opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, once again must fight endless sodomy charges aimed at keeping him in prison and out of politics.

That’s a long way from the heady days of the reformasi protests Anwar led in the late 1990s

In Thailand, the ruling military junta has imposed some of the most draconian laws restricting freedoms and democratic activity that this coup-prone country has seen in decades. Again, it makes the “people’s constitution” days of the 1990s seem light years away.

And of course in China, the ruling Communist Party under Xi Jinping remains as entrenched and as obdurate as ever.

So were the old “Asian values” autocrats right after all?

That school of thought, first enunciated by the likes of Mahathir and others of his ilk in the ’90s, held that Asia was different from other parts of the world, that Asian people prize stability more than democracy and that the Asian culture calls for a paternalistic ruler at the top. Advocates found plenty of fellow travelers among western cynics who were fond of spreading the notion that Asians don’t care about politics, only about making money.

I’ve traveled enough and lived in enough countries over the years to know that culture and history are indeed crucial to understanding a place. And despite the setbacks to democracy over the last decade and a half, I also haven’t changed my view that “Asian values” is a load of poppycock, pushed by dictators as an excuse to cling to power and crush dissent, and an intellectual justification for their refusal to countenance legitimate opposition to their rule.

To debunk the “Asian values” meme, consider the Philippines, one of Asia’s liveliest democracies. (Its Freedom House rank of only “partially free” is mainly down to the appalling attacks on journalists and culture of impunity that prevails.)

Then one only need look north. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Mongolia are lively, thriving examples of Asian democracy in action, and all four earn the Freedom House’s top rank of “free.” If Asians prefer paternalistic authoritarian rule, someone forgot to let the Japanese, South Koreans, Taiwanese and Mongolians know.

Back in 1997, I interviewed Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui and asked how the “Asian values” concept squared with Taiwan’s thriving democracy. “It’s nonsense,” Lee told me. “Asian people are human beings … Democracy is something everybody would like to have. Everybody would like more freedom.”

 

Smart words then and now. It’s taken a lot longer to get there than I thought, and there have been tremendous setbacks, as we’ve seen in recent weeks. But Asia is moving in the right direction, albeit in fits and starts.

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