Selma's Lesson for Asia

Last weekend, I watched the moving commemoration of the Selma, Alabama civil rights march of 1965 from the vantage point of Southeast Asia, and I began to think of the parellels — and how the battle for justice and equality still goes on.  Here’s the piece I wrote in my “Inside Edge” column for this week’s edition of The Edge Review.  Please feel free to add your comments below.
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Selma’s lesson for autocratic Asian
For anyone who cares about civil liberties, human rights and social justice, the weekend’s local newspapers in Bangkok made for some pretty depressing reading.
There was widespread coverage of the brutal crackdown on student protesters in Myanmar last week. Following that was a story about a prominent Singapore blogger being fined for contempt of court over an article he wrote criticizing the judiciary over a law banning gay sex.
Then there was a story of the military junta leader in Thailand, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, warning disgruntled Buddhist monks not to try staging a protest march, since large public gatherings are now illegal.
Just to add to the insult, on the same day came Prayuth’s revelation that he almost “punched … in the face” a Thai journalist who had the temerity to ask him a question about what the military government had accomplished since its May coup.
But I did see one uplifting story coming out of the US, and it made me more optimistic about events here in Southeast Asia.
In Selma, Alabama, thousands of people gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most violent clashes of America’s 1960s battle for racial justice and equality.
The brutal attack by police on peaceful marchers that day in 1965 focused national and international attention on America’s woeful record on race relations, and prompted Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, guaranteeing polling station access to all Americans.
Selma and the civil rights marches of the 1960s made America a better place, but there was also a global dimension that often goes overlooked.
Domestic racial segregation and injustice put a stain on American society, causing problems for US foreign policy by harming America’s image. The treatment of blacks in the US was a principal propaganda theme of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s.
Just as important, the bravery of those non-violent civil rights marchers meeting police truncheons, fire hoses, tear gas and attack dogs proved inspiring to others fighting for justice around the world, and particularly in colonized countries advocating for independence.
These days I often wonder whether America still has that ability to inspire by example.
The US still has unresolved issues of racial discrimination, racial profiling and poverty in minority communities. There are far too many black men incarcerated or under criminal justice supervision, and far too many more being killed by police officers or by each other in senseless street violence.
The unemployment rate for African-Americans is twice that of whites, and there is an inequality gap that is far too wide.
And everyone knows the political system, once emulated around the world, is now mired in dysfunction.
So can the US still inspire others around the world? I say it still can, as I see progress in many areas, especially those involving freedoms – and I hope it’s globally contagious.
While places like Singapore and Malaysia still selectively prosecute gay men for sodomy, in the US gay marriage is now legal in 37 of the 50 states, and the trend is moving rapidly toward greater acceptance and nationwide marriage equality. Gay rights has been called the civil rights struggle for this generation.
The US has far too many people imprisoned for drug offences, but 27 states and Washington, DC, have either legalized medical use of marijuana or downgraded marijuana possession to a minor offence, like a traffic fine. In four states, its recreational use is now legal. The US Justice Department is now reviewing the cases of thousands of federal inmates jailed purely for non-violent drug-related charges.
The moving weekend ceremonies at Selma also showed that the US still has a remarkable capacity for self-reflection, self-criticism and, when needed, self-improvement.
America is far from perfect, and in promoting human rights in other countries it convinces much more when its leaders are able to acknowledge past wrongs and redress them.
A lone heartening article from the Thai press last weekend was a Bangkok Postop-ed by Prayuth’s spokesman, Yongyuth Mayalarp, writing about the military regime’s “vision” and the need to learn from other countries’ histories.
“We are aware of the civil rights campaign in the United States and those who fought and gave the ultimate sacrifice for equality and to protect the ideals of civic duty and good citizenship,” Yongyuth wrote.
Let’s hope they learn the right lessons of Selma, and stop banning legitimate protests.
And let’s hope the reformers around the region do not lose heart. Things may look bleak now, but as Selma shows, justice will ultimately prevail.