Asean’s authoritarian problem

NOVEMBER 19 — The Supreme Court of a South-east Asian country has just dissolved the nation’s opposition party.

The leader of the party was detained months ago. Newspapers have been shut down, activists and journalists have been detained or are being intimidated.

The country’s leader and prime minister of more than 30 years will now, most likely, face elections in 2018 unopposed.

The country in question is Cambodia but it barely matters. The same could happen in a number of other Asean nations.

In Thailand, of course, we’ve seen the main opposition party dissolved on multiple occasions.

The country’s Opposition leaders Thaksin Shinawatra and his Sister Ying Luck currently face jail terms and the results of multi-party elections in the country have not been upheld.

Of course Myanmar, over the past few months, has displaced an entire people; hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have lived in that part of the country for generations were forced across borders in the wake of horrendous violence.

Even in the region’s most advanced economies, opposition parties and activists face harassment and truly independent media remains a distant dream.

The simple reality is that our region suffers from a real democratic deficit. Not one Asean nation can really be said to have a truly functioning multi-party political system underpinned by a strong independent judiciary, free press and civil society.

Rohingya refugee walks with an umbrella in the Palong Khali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 17, 2017. — Reuters pic
Rohingya refugee walks with an umbrella in the Palong Khali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 17, 2017. — Reuters pic

This is a real problem. A few years ago we’d pooh-pooh the matter and say to critics, “Well, democracy doesnt work for developing nations.”

We’d point out the huge strides made by the authoritarian Asian Tigers — Taiwan, South Korea, our own Singapore, even distant Chile under Pinochet — and say, “Human rights and civil society — what rubbish — what we need is growth and jobs.”

There was some truth in our utterances but decades later, the same sentiments ring less true.

South Korea, Taiwan, Chile etc made their leaps towards development and then democratised. Today’s South-east Asian countries are more educated and literate than ever before, social media and the internet make information control more difficult than before but still, much of the region’s population live under strongmen, junta or one party based systems.

These systems are not delivering like they used to. If you look at GDP capita figures and Human Development Index numbers the new democracies in Latin America and Eastern Europe are, in many cases, outperforming South-east Asia.

The conveyor belt is broken — our region’s strongmen are no longer taking nations from Third World to First.

After Singapore achieved developed world income and living standards more than 20 years ago, no other nation has come close to breaking the barrier.

So, we have a system of strongmen and regimes — inflexible systems that are difficult to change and alter as they lack checks and balances along with a lack of transformative growth.

This is a recipe for instability; people begin to want change but how can change be delivered in systems that don’t allow for it. Thailand has seen its coups, the Philippines is fighting ISIS on one hand and conducting a huge and violent pogrom against supposed drug users on the other. Myanmar faces unrest on multiple fronts and Cambodia isn’t looking too stable now either.

This is, inevitable, given the paralysed political systems we are dealing with, the question is how long before this instability spreads — Singapore and Malaysia may not always be immune.

Until Asean begins to realise that while we may not need the West’s supposed ideal form of democracy, we do need basic democratic processes and norms.

Some mechanism for preventing governments from getting out of hand and turning from stable systems to truly oppressive ones.

For some of the more mature political/economic players in the region, it may simply be a matter of bringing it up — of not simply conducting economic negotiations without considering political consequences.

We do not need to go down the West’s disastrous path of ill-thought out interference but we can certainly give our neighbours a piece of our mind — and tell them they can’t have all the trade, travel and other perks they want if they are going to keep spilling instability, refugees, and extremism into the region.

The time has come for us to start talking about this and accept that it’s time for us to improve, as a region, in terms of governance, rights and systems — not in order to conform to anyone else’s ideas about human rights but in the interest of things we can all agree on: stability, harmony and making money.

This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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