Suggested Questions for Congressional Hearing on Democracy in Asia

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The Obama administration has made the Asia-Pacific region a focus of its foreign policy, but what role does democracy play in U.S. relations with these important countries? 

Freedom House has suggested the following questions for a June 11 hearing on the topic by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

1.  China policy: Human rights conditions in China have deteriorated under President Xi Jinping. The persecution of writers, journalists, and human rights lawyers has intensified. Recently, officials have proposed further draconian laws to restrict the work of NGOs, crackdown on dissent, and infringe on the rights of U.S. companies. Yet a recent Freedom House report found that for the United States and other major democracies, short-term economic and strategic priorities almost always override democracy and human rights concerns in relations with China. Another Freedom House study found that China’s Communist Party regime is becoming both more repressive and more vulnerable to instability. How can U.S. foreign policy more effectively address Beijing’s authoritarian governance problems and ensure that the United States does not sacrifice its values and long-term interests for the sake of smoother bilateral relations in the near term?

2.   Democracy in Hong Kong: Last year’s crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, coupled with a five-year decline in press freedom in the territory, sent a troubling signal about the prospects for democracy under Chinese rule. In July, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council will vote on a Beijing-approved plan for the 2017 chief executive election, which the 2014 protesters firmly rejected. Has the administration raised the importance of democracy and universal suffrage with the Chinese government? What else can be done, by the U.S. government or civil society groups, to support those pushing for free elections in Hong Kong?

3.  South China Sea: What do the Chinese government’s aggressive actions in the contested waters and islands of the South China Sea mean for the future of democracy in the region? Is it possible for the smaller countries to form a united front given their dramatically different levels of democratic governance? Will the United States require human rights improvements in Vietnam in particular as a condition for military or diplomatic support?

4.  Religious freedom for Uighurs: Ramadan begins June 17, and Chinese authorities can be expected to tightly control the ability of Muslims in Uighur regions to observe this important period of religious faith. Officials have increasingly sought to regulate Muslim dress, diet, and worship, and persecuted public servants and others who adhere to religious traditions. What is the United States doing to raise these issues with the Chinese government, and what is the administration’s plan in the event of another crackdown by Chinese authorities?

5.  Minorities in Myanmar: The Myanmar government is targeting ethnic and religious minorities like the Rohingya and the Kachin, fomenting unrest and sectarian violence, and forcing thousands to flee. Discriminatory policies—like refusing to recognize Rohingyas’ citizenship and leaving them stateless—are causing human misery and shifting responsibility for the problem to the country’s neighbors. More than 100,000 Rohingyas have fled, putting their lives in the hands of ruthless smugglers. Those who survive face uncertainty in their host countries. How are the discriminatory actions of Myanmar’s government affecting U.S. relations with the country? How are they affecting Myanmar’s prospects for inclusive, democratic governance and long-term stability?

6.  Internet freedom in Cambodia: What is the administration doing to promote internet freedom in Cambodia, where the government has recently moved to monitor and restrict speech online?

7.  Civil society programs: In September 2013, President Obama launched the “Stand with Civil Society” initiative, but implementation has amounted to little more than rhetoric so far. What can the administration do to put words into action and provide meaningful support for civil society in Asia?

8.  Setbacks in Malaysia: Malaysian authorities have been engaged in a crackdown on human rights defenders, academics, journalists, lawyers, and opposition politicians, often using national security as a justification. How will the United States ensure that any diplomatic and trade agreements with Malaysia and other nations in Southeast Asia include meaningful engagement on human rights issues?

9.  Thailand’s military regime: How is the United States using its leverage with Thailand to encourage a transition back to elected civilian rule? Will elections actually take place in early 2016, or will they be postponed yet again? What must occur in order for these elections to be free and fair?

10.  LGBTI in Southeast Asia: Across Southeast Asia, many laws dealing with public conduct, mode of dress, loitering, and pornography discriminate against LGBTI people, either explicitly or in practice. In Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore, same-sex conduct between consenting adults is criminalized. In certain areas of the Philippines and Indonesia homosexuality is banned under Sharia laws. Brunei, parts of Indonesia, and Malaysia ban “cross-dressing.” What can the administration do to effectively promote recognition of the rights of LGBTI people in the region?

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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