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Our task in revitalising democracy
- Subject: Our task in revitalising democracy
- From: ausgeo@xxxxxxx
- Date: Tue, 22 Jul 1997 05:55:00
Subject: Our task in revitalising democracy in Asian region
22 Jul 1997
Our task in revitalising democracy in Asian region
In the final of a three-part series, Walden Bello argues that the best way to
defend democracy is to enhance its practice locally and advance it to other
countries in the region.
Flaws in democratic practice in Asia are working to the benefit of the
authoritarian regimes in their struggle for survival. Taking advantage of the
impasse in the region's democracy movement, they have recently launched a
fresh drive to shore up their rule.
First, their apologists have not hesitated to paint the parliamentary mess in
Thailand as the future, that corruption and inefficiencies await their own
people should they allow democratic movements to come to power. Thailand's
current economic crisis is blamed on democratic decision-making, with the
authoritarian apologists claiming that stable economic development demands the
strong hand of an authoritarian state. A great worry is that this argument is
resonating in Thailand itself, especially among business and technocratic
Authoritarian apologists in the region have voiced strong doubts that the
recent economic growth in the Philippines is compatible with a democratic
succession that may yield "a man or woman of the people" as president one
who might resurrect the economics of populism and protectionism, with its
putative destabilising consequences.
Second, authoritarian governments, particularly Indonesia, have successfully
extended the Asean "principle" of strict non-intervention in the affairs of
other member countries to cover free-speech activities conducted in the
territory of other Asean countries that are alleged to have destabilising
political consequences for them.
Indonesia pressured Philippine President Fidel Ramos to ban the Asia-Pacific
Conference on East Timor in Manila in 1994 and prevent the Nobel Peace Prize
winner Jose Ramos-Horta from attending the Manila People's Forum on Apec last
November. Under Indonesian pressure, then Thai prime minister Chuan Leekpai
also tried to break up an East Timor conference in Bangkok and expelled
Ramos-Horta from the country in 1995.
Third, pro-authoritarian forces have pushed to bring in other non-democratic
regimes into Asean to shore up their hegemony at both national and regional
level. The recent efforts to bring in Burma, for instance, have been largely
dictated by the Suharto regime's domestic interests. Suharto is increasingly
preoccupied with the rising pressures for democratisation in Indonesia, which
he sees as being stoked by the different movements for human rights and
democracy in the region. Bringing in more non-democratic regimes would
strengthen the authoritarian pole in the balance of power within Asean: it
would serve to neutralise the formal democratic regimes the Philippines and
Thailand and prevent them from following foreign policies that would be more
sympathetic to democratic movements on the ground.
Moreover, accepting more authoritarian regimes would create a solid front
against external criticism of repressive practices not only in Indonesia but
in the majority of Asean states. Not surprisingly, the most enthusiastic
backers of such an expansion have been the other authoritarian regimes,
notably Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. In the process, the "Asean
brotherhood" is being redefined as a brotherhood of Asean authoritarian states
against liberal democracy, human rights, and other "Western biases".
In the face of this reinvigorated authoritarian offensive, what have the
formal democratic governments done? They have behaved almost as if they were
ashamed of their democratic credentials. They have given in to Indonesian
demands to ban East Timor conferences and East Timor personalities. So
weak-knee and unprincipled has the Philippines' Asean policy been that the
Filipino government agreed to serve as Slorc's minong or formal sponsor during
the Asean senior ministers' meeting that finalised Burma's membership. The day
is not far off when a conference on human rights in Burma will not be allowed
to take place on Filipino soil or on Thai soil, and Aung San Suu Kyi will be
the second Nobel laureate banned from entering these two countries.
But just as alarming as the abandonment of the principles of democracy and
human rights as the pillars of foreign policy has been the internal, domestic
impact of what amounts to "authoritarian encirclement," to borrow an image
from the 1930s when Stalin justified repressive measures in the Soviet Union
by appealing to the notion of "capitalist encirclement."
The authoritarian climate at the state level in the region has encouraged the
authoritarian propensities of those sections of the governing elites in
Thailand and the Philippines who have never been completely socialised to
democratic principles and processes.
In the Philippines, personal support and approval from the other Asean
leaders, who consider Ramos a good Asean team player, is undoubtedly one of
the factors that is leading him to take an increasingly cavalier attitude to
the question of revising the Philippine Constitution in order to allow him to
again stand for election. Ramos, it must always be remembered, served his
cousin Ferdinand Marcos in a variety of roles, including director-general of
the Integrated National Police, chief of the Philippines Constabulary and
chief of the Armed Forces. Switching sides in February 1986 was more a product
of military and political calculation than democratic conversion.
To an ambitious man like Ramos, it must be galling at times to realise that
while democratic rules will shortly rotate him out of the Asean summit, his
friends Suharto, Mahathir, Singapore's Goh Chok Tong, and Brunei's Sultan
Hassanal Bolkiah, have been there for a long time and may be there
Thus, there is some urgency to reinvigorating the democracy movement in
Southeast Asia. If the analyse above is correct, revitalising the movement
must proceed along the following lines:
First, democracy must be expanded in the region. For democracy is, in a very
real sense, indivisible. There can be no "democracy in one country," to borrow
another famous historical slogan. Unless it expands to become the system of
government of your neighbour as well, democracy will constantly be under the
threat of being undermined from the outside by regimes that hate the example
that democratic processes hold out to their own controlled citizenry.
If we support the struggles for democracy in Burma, Malaysia, Singapore,
Brunei, and Indonesia, this should not be seen only as an enterprise that
stems not only from fraternal solidarity but from self-interest, that is, for
the sake of protecting our own democratic practices, cultures, and traditions.
Second, democracy must be deepened in the countries where it now has a
foothold. For democracy is an evolving, not a fixed enterprise. A democracy
that is limited to the respect and protection of political rights and
classical individual rights will wither away. Democracy must be deepened to
create the conditions for the meaningful exercise of those political rights.
This means that fundamental to the democratic enterprise is the relatively
equal distribution of income and assets that can serve as the only basis of
genuine political equals.
Third, the practice of democracy must be made more direct. The traditional
models of representative democracy have ossified, and a central element of the
reinvigoration of the democratic enterprise is innovation and experimentation
in direct democracy, eliminating more and more intermediaries between the
citizen and the exercise of decision-making. This is not only a case of
devolving administration and legislation to the grassroots but having
communities themselves participate directly in national decision-making on
national, regional, and international matters. It is time to rediscover