Contest now in Asia between authoritarian and progressive forces

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 October, 2016, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 October, 2016, 10:48pm

Fifty years ago, Greece, Spain and Portugal were military dictatorships. At the same time, similar governments prevailed in South Korea and Taiwan. Today, these two countries are vibrant democracies.

There has been progress elsewhere in Asia in countries like Indonesia and more recently Burma. A Burmese acquaintance of mine spent 14 years as a political prisoner, two of them in solitary confinement. The Burmese police smashed in all his teeth, a favourite means of humiliating people who disagreed with the military government. Like the young activists in Hong Kong, this brave man felt it worthwhile to struggle for his political rights.

Whether we like it or not, there is a contest under way in Asia between authoritarian and progressive forces.

Some countries have moved forward while others like North Korea, China and Vietnam are controlled by rigid governments intolerant of any opposition. Malaysia, for so long a bright example of comparative ethnic and religious tolerance supported by steady economic growth, is lapsing back into the dark ages.

The opposition leader is in prison, dissenters are bombarded with sedition orders, the constituency boundaries are gerrymandered, the mainstream press is controlled by the coalition government and corruption and Malay preferment are undermining racial harmony.

So who will stand by the progressive forces in Asia? Not the UN Security Council or General Assembly where inaction over Syria has been shameful. Not the EU, which is in chaos following the euro zone, refugee and Brexit crises. Not Japan, preoccupied by its anaemic economy and saddled by too much historical baggage. And not the US, where the likely collapse of the American-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact leaves US Asian diplomacy in tatters. The pivot to Asia is becoming the pivot to oblivion. God help us if Donald Trump is elected president.

In the meantime, China is picking off potential US allies one by one: Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and now the Philippines.

There is a view, popular with “pro-establishment” supporters in Hong Kong, that the US has “crossed the line” between providing moral support and, where relevant, raising issues with the appropriate authorities, to a position where the CIA is supporting and funding elements of the pan-democratic movement. True or false, this perception is clearly a considerable handicap for the progressive forces in Hong Kong.

Would somebody in the US diplomatic community care to respond to this accusation?

Nicholas Rogers, Mid-Levels