Asian Nations Face Mounting Democracy Deficit
January 29, 2008
Bangkok Post, by Camille Eiss
The appointment of former foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan as Asean secretary-general suggests a welcome commitment to ratification of the Asean charter and the establishment of an Asean human rights commission in 2008. Indeed, the violent suppression of monk-led protests in Burma in late September grabbed global attention, underlining the urgency of a regional commitment to human rights and the importance of an effective Asia-owned vehicle for responding to such atrocities.
While the formation of a dedicated commission should mark an important step, no body can be more effective than the sum of its parts.
The findings of Freedom House's recently released global survey of political rights and civil liberties, entitled Freedom in the World, reveal significant problems in a number of the region's most influential countries.
This suggests that Asean's potential to serve as that vehicle may face limits even more considerable than the 40-year-old institution's rigid non-intervention policy.
Before the grouping can effectively police human rights violations in the region as a whole, its member governments will need to make great strides toward protecting human rights and delivering accountable governance at home. At present, a lethal mix of political insecurity and weak democratic institutions poses a considerable threat in several key countries.
The Philippines, whose dedicated human rights working group proved a strong force behind the regional human rights commission, registered the single greatest score decline in Southeast Asia for calendar year 2007. Mounting evidence suggests that members of the country's armed forces are responsible for many of the numerous extra-judicial killings and abductions of leftist activists that have occurred since President Gloria Arroyo entered office in 2001.
But Ms Arroyo faces a severe legitimacy crisis rooted in the 2004 election scandals that makes her hold on power highly dependent on military support. She can't necessarily afford to hold the perpetrators accountable. Meanwhile, the country's imperiled judicial system contributes to a wider culture of impunity, lessening expectations that convictions should result.
The fundamental danger increasingly associated with political activism, the spike in violence in the run up to the May legislative elections, and the weakness of the country's firmly discredited Commission on Elections, collectively disqualified the Philippines from the 'Electoral Democracy' designation this year for the first time since the survey began tracking electoral democracies in 1989.
In Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has failed to fulfill his promises of transparency and accountability. Rising crime, economic frustrations, and ethnic and religious tensions along with an escalating judicial crisis have prompted widely supported calls for electoral and judicial reform as well as the protection of minority rights.
The government has responded with a massive crackdown on online media, while the Royal Malaysian Police Force - the institution most pegged for reform under this administration - violently suppressed the largest demonstrations in a decade and arrested hundreds of Indian rights activists.
Perhaps most worrisome, increasing calls for change have led the prime minister and ruling party to further embrace the mantle of Malay supremacy in an effort to shore up support in advance of elections. This hardly bodes well for religious and personal freedoms as perceptions of increasing 'Islamisation' due to a series of harsh court decisions fuel discontent among the country's Chinese and Indian minorities.
While the survey registered an improvement for Thailand over the last year as a result of the recent elections, the country still remains less free than prior to the September 2006 coup that curtailed democracy altogether.
The manner in which the military government moved to restore the electoral process - banning the country's largest political party, upholding martial law in a number of provinces, and approving a notably less democratic constitution than that in place before - cannot be forgotten. Elections notwithstanding, the year was generally characterised by significant curbs on political choice.
Meanwhile, religious freedom in the country has suffered with the intensification of violence in the South.
The fact that the people across Southeast Asia are using new technologies and organising more effectively to assert their rights makes their governments' repressive, knee-jerk responses and failure to deliver on long-held promises all the more disappointing.
Universal ratification of an Asean charter that includes a formal human rights body will hopefully bring a measurable stride forward. But it is hardly enough. The protection of human rights in Southeast Asia demands that the governments of the region's most influential countries prove accountable to their own electorates by strengthening the democratic institutions essential to safeguarding the rights of their own citizens. They are bound to yield much greater effect by setting regional precedents and serving as models for Burma than they ever will as regional policemen, with little ground to stand on.
Camille Eiss is a Southeast Asia analyst at Freedom House.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.