Sure-footed steps towards democracy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 March, 2006, 12:00am


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Recent events in Thailand and the Philippines pose a huge challenge for the spread of democratic practices in Southeast Asia. But it would be a mistake to see them simply as confirmation of a corrupt and failing political culture, and so overlook other crucial and positive developments in the region.

Much of the frustration among the opposition in both countries stems from their inability to use existing means to curb the powers of popularly elected leaders. But, from a wider regional perspective, the picture is hardly all doom and gloom. Among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (Asean) core members {minus} Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand {minus} democratic practices continue to take root, although the pace is uneven and often slow.

Most recently, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who himself came to power after a direct vote, this month called on Myanmar's junta to move towards democracy. The Indonesian stance follows Asean's readiness, under western pressure, to drop plans for Myanmar to chair the organisation this year, and should not be dismissed as mere window dressing.

Explicit criticism of Myanmar by another Asean member, and support for greater democracy, would have been unthinkable in 1997, when Yangon was granted membership and the organisation opposed 'interference' in each other's affairs.

Two other separate events reinforce evidence of greater acceptance of democratic norms among Asean's core members: their response to the threat of bird flu and the organisation's agreement in December to work towards a charter.

Unlike their preference for denial during the early days of Sars and Aids, regional governments have shown a greater candidness on bird flu. Admittedly, transparency in one area does not automatically translate into openness in others. But it is establishing important precedents and lessons.

In other words, many of the essential norms of democratic life {minus} transparency and accountability in politics, business, human rights, civil society, education, the environment and military behaviour {minus} have increasingly assumed the status of accepted ideals, although not necessarily actual practice.

Prospectively, democratic trends in Southeast Asia - which includes Indonesia, with the world's largest Muslim population - could hold lessons for China and the Middle East. As a country of more than 300 ethnic groups and 250 languages, Indonesia is discovering that, despite its uncertainty and chaos, democracy probably represents its best guarantee for stability and survival as a modern nation state.

Another key lesson from the region's political development - and its implications for other countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan - is that cultivating a democratic culture requires patience, and setbacks are inevitable. So optimism must be tempered with caution, and western governments must keep pressing for greater freedoms and respect for human rights. The role of the United States - under whose tutelage democratic governments emerged in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - is essential.

Equally, Asean's core members must keep reforming themselves, and use their influence to change the realities prevalent not only in Myanmar, but in the other member states of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Barry Hing is a Sydney-based writer