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Democracy and ASEAN (The Hindu, 5/1
Subject: Democracy and ASEAN (The Hindu, 5/12/96.)
Democracy and ASEAN
The Hindu, 5/12/96.
By V jayanth
THE Association of South-East Asian Nations is not exactly a
bastion of democracy. But democracy has suddenly become an
issue in the region and for the grouping because of Myanmar,
Increasing pressure from the West - mostly the U.S. and E.U. -
has made at least some South-East Asian countries rethink their
policy of "constructive engagement" with the military junta in
Myanmar. Probably because of their close ties and trade links,
the Philippines and Thailand have become the major spokesmen
for the pro-democracy tilt in the ASEAN's perception. But they
are also trying to make it appear that it is not just on grounds of
democracy, but more because of the preparations involved that
they would like to give Myanmar more time to join the
ASEAN. Singapore has also agreed to put off Yangon's entry.
Though no models of democracy, most of the Southeast Asian
countries have adopted their own political systems and go
through the motions of an electoral process to install a popular
government. That is why Myanmar has become a sticking
point. It has been singled out by the West because the military
junta that has been ruling the country from 1988 has no
mandate from the people. In fact, it brushed aside a democratic
verdict in favour of the National League for Democracy in the
>From 1992, the State Law and Order Restoration Council
(SLORC) has been busy trying to put together a new
constitution on the basis of which the next general election will
be held. And it continues with the promise that this effort will
be completed soon and elections held under a multiparty
A speciality of the region is that of long serving leaders and
almost one-party rule in many countries. The alternative is the
communist state and system. In Indonesia, the President, Mr.
Suharto (75), who rose from the military, has been at the helm
for three decades and his supporters want him to stay through
this decade and take the country into the next century.
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, who is responsible for the phenomenal
growth and emergence of the City State of Singapore. had ruled
for 25 years before stepping down in 1990 on his own. But the
People's Action Party he led has ruled the country all along. It
holds 77 out of 81 seats in Parliament and appears set to
dominate the scene for many more years to come.
In Malaysia, too. one-party and then a coalition has ruled the
country - the National Front. Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has been
Prime Minister since 1981, hoping to lead the dynamic economy
at least till the end of the decade. His coalition of Malay,
Chinese and Indian parties, along with regional groups, enjoys
more than 80 per cent of the popular vote.
Vietnam is a communist State rind the party sets the agenda and
the Government rules by decree. By adopting an open
economy, Hanoi is trying to demonstrate like China the
feasibility of a liberal but centrally controlled economy - despite
the obvious contradiction in terms. Brunei is a Sultanate. Since
the Sultan controls the State and owns it, he also sets
the goals and runs the administration. Since its liberation from
colonial rule by Great Britain, he has formed a Government
with his relatives, friends and officials. Private and foreign
enterprises have begun to play a major rule.
That leaves out only the Philippines and Thailand. After
emerging from dictatorship and martial law through a
revolution in 1986, the Philippines has surprisingly emerged as
the Western favourite for a flourishing democracy. It has an
executive presidency, but is controlled by a bicameral
parliament. The President, Mr. Fidel Ramos, is not averse to
amending the Constitution to enable him to seek a second term
in office though it clearly forbids a President from doing so.
This was done precisely to prevent the emergence of a
democratic dictator after the country's experiences with
Thailand is more an exception than the rule in the region. It is
the only country not to have been a colony or dominated by
foreign powers such as japan. It is a kingdom with a
parliamentary democracy. There has been no stable
government in Bangkok for ages, perhaps because the people
have never given any single party a clear mandate or majority.
The largest party invariably puts together a brittle coalition of
Among the potential members of ASEAN, Laos is a communist
State and Cambodian. a fledgling democracy. is under intense
pressure to become more authoritarian because of the complex
problems facing the country.
Myanmar completes the list of 10 South East Asian nations.
Where does it fit in ' , The military junta is trying to work out a
system based on the Indonesian model - an Executive President
with a bicameral parliament and a socio-political role for the
armed forces, with a representation in parliament as well.
Unfortunately for the junta, the Constitution has taken too long
to evolve and the Opposition National League for Democracy
(NLD) pulled out of the drafting body - the National
Convention - last year. That leaves
the draft constitution with no credibility and it is doubtful if the
ruling junta will opt t@ hold a referendum on the new
document before venturing to hold an election on its basis. And
that is where the problem lies - credibility and acceptance by the
The pro-democracy leader, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, has been
pressing for a Dialogue with the military rulers to begin the
process of restoring democracy. She makes it clear that the
armed forces can play a role only in defending the country, but
not claim a political role in a civilian government.
With moral pressure and the backing of the people, the Nobel-
laureate has been urging -the-international community to exert
more pressure on the junta, to open a dialogue and restore
democracy. But there is a realisation that sanctions do not
work. Past experience has shown that the military rulers can
survive any policy of isolation and such a stance will only drive
Myanmar into the waiting arms of China. It is for this reason
that ASEAN fashioned its policy of "constructive engagement"
and hopes that the ultimate entry of Myanmar into the fold
would make the military junta speed up political and economic
Because of sustained Western pressure, ASEAN is trying to
evolve its own style of engaging Myanmar. Without letting it
that democracy is a precondition for joining the group, or giving
the impression that it wants to interfere in the internal affairs,
the group has to make sure that Myanmar adopts some
legitimate and acceptable form of governance with a mandate.
Leaders of South-East Asia have been openly critical of the
Western style of democracy and make it abundantly clear that
no system can be imposed on another country. Every country
must adopt its own chosen system to meet its individual needs
and the condition of its people.
Mr. Lee and Dr. Mahathir Mohamad have been critical not only
of the Western democracies, but even of countries like India. It
is their argument that countries such as India have not been able
to achieve their potential 1 of development and growth because
of an excess of democracy. 11
Mr. Mukul G. Asher, Associate Professor at the National
University of Singapore, for one. wants the ASEAN countries
to open up their political systems to more reforms so that they
can move over to the next stage of development. Re argues
that creativity and enterprise in the region can move on to the
next phase of development
Sources at the institution of South-East Asian Studies say that
they have feedback from South Asia that the people there want
to shift the focus from politics and democracy to growth and
development. "This is a reversal of roles. People in Southeast
Asia are now asking for more political space and a greater say
in governance. But those in South Asia are now looking for
faster growth. They want the political parties to keep the
economy out of politics so that the countries can grow faster.
The recent developments in India clearly point to this trend
because the people have tasted the fruits of development and
growth. That is why we are told there can be no reversal of
policy," they explain.
They recognise the need to protect the interests of the poor and
suggest that any government must address the concerns of the
poor through a selective intervention programme and, at the
same time, continue to liberalise the economy so that its benefits
ultimately reach the poor. It may take some time but is
achievable With determination and political stability.
The ideal therefore may be somewhere in between - a mix of
South Asia's political systems with South-East Asia's economic
model and development - so that an Asian system can emerge.