Democracy, Freedom in Asia under threat

Philip Ney
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
22 Sep 07

Yesterday marked the 35th anniversary of the imposition of martial law in the country that ushered in 14 brutal years of the Marcos dictatorship. In 1986, the Marcoses were toppled by a people power uprising on Edsa that became the modern-day template for peaceful democratic revolutions that eventually brought down dictators and tyrants across the globe.

Today, however, democracy and freedom, particularly in Asia, are again in a “dismal and damning” state, threatened by a chilling resurgence of military and authoritarian regimes.

“The prospects are dim and the challenges daunting. Many countries have maintained the dubious distinction of being classic examples of pseudo-democracies,” claimed Anwar Ibrahim, the former Malaysian deputy prime minister, in his keynote address before pro-democracy leaders, freedom fighters and activists all over Asia who have gathered for three days in Manila to find ways to promote and strengthen democracy.

The World Forum for Democratization in Asia (WFDA), which concluded yesterday, brought together over a hundred leaders who have made noted contributions to democracy at the national and international levels. However, obvious non-attendees were Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma and Dr. Chee Soon Juan, chairman of the Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia (ARDA), who were prohibited by their governments from attending. Suu Kyi remains under house arrest. Banned from traveling out of Singapore due to his pro-democracy activities, Dr. Chee addressed the conference via a video feed.

Paying homage to the deep roots of people power in the Philippines, Anwar said: “More than a century ago, here on this land, an Asian hero sacrificed his life for freedom,” referring to Dr. Jose Rizal, the country’s national hero, whose martyrdom sparked the Philippine Revolution that established the first democratic republic in Asia.

But the current generation of Filipinos and other Asians, Anwar warned, have become “too complacent” as their governments have eroded their liberties. “Today, the subject of democracy and freedom in Asia has become doubly pressing in view of the rising incidents of assault on the institutions of civil society and the increasing tendency of the powers-that-be to rob us of our liberties and undermine our constitutional foundations.”

The situation, Anwar said, did not happen overnight, tracing the decline in the fervent discourse on the state of democracy in Asia to the economic success and relative political stability experienced during the 1980s and 1990s. With the crippling impact of the financial crisis of 1997, he said, came phenomenal changes that caused a “reversion to autocracy or plunging deeper into the depths of dictatorship.”

Participants at the three-day gathering called on Asian democrats to show solidarity against those who erode democracy, establish regional standards on democratic practices and processes, and cooperate in establishing dialogue with authorities in the region to move towards the implementation of democracy.

Limited democracy

“Dictators come together and support each other,” said Sam Rainsy, leader of the Sam Rainsy Party in Cambodia. “Why don’t we democrats support each other?”

The Khmer opposition leader said the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge was not enough to bring democracy to Cambodia as the same political actors continue to dominate the system. For democracy to prosper in Cambodia, Rainsy suggested that three institutional developments must first take place: “a real, vibrant opposition, an independent judiciary, and transparent, honest elections that reflect, or at least not distort, the will of the people.” Currently, Cambodia, he said, meets only the first of these conditions.

After serving as finance minister after the ouster of the Khmer Rouge, Rainsy founded the first legal opposition party in post-communist Cambodia. His party has experienced lots of government repression; he faced many trumped-up political charges and was temporarily forced into exile. Seventy of his colleagues have been killed. In the last election, 35 percent of voters, mostly opposition supporters, were disenfranchised. The broadcast media is also controlled by the ruling Hun Sen government.

“The government is asking Cambodians to choose between rice and freedom, between rice and justice,” said Rainsy, citing the priority given to the economy while allowing the Khmer Rouge trials to stall because of lack of funds.

Dr. Vo Van Ai of Vietnam similarly warned about “authoritarian Asian governments (that) are forming an alliance to crush democracy.” Authoritarian governments, he said, rely on each other’s support and authoritarian countries like Burma are modeling themselves after one another, an autocracy that has succeeded economically and become acceptable to the major powers.

For Irene Fernandez, a member of the Indian minority in Malaysia and co-founder of the nongovernment group Teneganita, democracy in much of Asia is substantively meaningless because of ethnic and religious exclusion, the globalization agenda and the war on terrorism. In Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and in Mindanao, she said politics is based on asserting an ethnic identity rather than on substantive political choice.

Large international migrant populations, she said, are another threat to democracy in Asia, considering the politically disenfranchised status of migrant workers.

“When the government becomes a facility for market forces to work, we no longer have democracy,” says Fernandez. “When government becomes a hapless tool of globalization and market forces, then people no longer can determine their own future through democracy. At the end of the day, the war on terrorism is about ensuring that we live in a unipolar world. People in all countries cooperate with it so that they can benefit from the globalization agenda.”

‘People power’ alive and well

In spite of the encroachments on democracy and freedom in the region, people power appears to be alive and well. Khin Ohmar of the Asia-Pacific Peoples’ Partnership for Burma expressed optimism that the Burmese people are “see(ing) the light at the end of the tunnel” after 19 years of military dictatorship. In the demonstrations since August 19, 2007, over 200 democracy activists have been arrested or gone into hiding. However, thousands of Buddhist monks are engaging in non-violent protests that the military has been unable to quell.

In Pakistan, Anwar also lauded as a hopeful sign the recent use of people power to protect the judiciary. “With the rising tide of opposition to military rule, the resurgence of judicial independence and courage, and the people’s conviction that dictatorship and tyranny are not their best options, freedom and democracy are only a matter of time.”

Democracy, argued Anwar, is not incompatible with Islam, citing Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, which became a democracy not through the power of a gun or through American intervention but through a people’s revolution. The world’s second largest Muslim population lives in India, also a democracy, he added.

However, in Muslim countries like his home country of Malaysia, Anwar acknowledged that democrats will have to work hard to see democracy realized. Just before traveling to speak at the Manila forum, he held a press conference in which he played a video showing a leading lawyer discussing the fixing of cases with the number one judge of the federal court.

“If this had happened in India, Philippines or Indonesia, the government would have been shaken right away. Those who fight for democracy in Malaysia have trouble getting their message out because the press is government-controlled,” said Anwar.

Limits of ‘people power’

Yet despite the important contribution of people power revolutions to the democratization process in many Asian countries, Dr. Carolina Hernandez of the Philippine Institute for Strategic and Development Studies counseled Asian democrats against using these as a solution to every crisis.

Though she acknowledged the importance of democracy from the bottom up, Hernandez emphasized that strong institutions need to be built in order to make democracy stable and meaningful. She said that democrats have to look beyond removing undemocratic leaders and instead focus on establishing institutions that will ensure good governance in the long term.

Evidently, Hernandez’s analysis calls into question the wisdom of the attempts to remove Estrada and Arroyo through “People Power.” Compared to 1986 (when it was used to prevent a constitutional process from being trampled as Marcos prevented Aquino from winning the snap election), and 2001 (when the constitutional impeachment process against Joseph Estrada was derailed prematurely), Hernandez said the later two “People Power” attempts to remove Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo lacked clear constitutional means, besides getting less numerical and sustained popular support in mass demonstrations.

“Definitely People Power is a procedural short-cut,” said Hernandez. “When we resort to short-cuts, it is inevitable that we are not going to consolidate democracy…To frequently resort to People Power as a means of extra-constitutional succession causes damage to democratic institutions.”

Still, with the democracy deficit in many Asian countries, as well as the enduring fate of Burma under a military junta that is one of the world’s worst human rights offenders, pro-democracy leaders and freedom fighters are one in saying that political reforms are urgently needed.

In relation to Burma, Anwar said that it’s time that Asian democracies abandoned their policy of “non-interference by turning a blind eye to corruption, oppression, and violations of human rights.”

Appealing to citizens of all Asian countries not to settle for less than democracy, Anwar said, “We cannot have a government which continues to violate our fundamental liberties and at the same time call it a democracy. We cannot have a government which uses state powers to punish political rivals and yet call it a democracy. And we most certainly cannot have a government which thrives on corruption, abuse of power and the rule of one man and call it a democracy.”

Philip Ney is a Canadian post-graduate student currently working on his internship at the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

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