Whither Asian Democracies?

Pressure from China may keep some freedom-loving Asian nations from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.
Parameswaran Ponnudurai
2010-12-04
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Indonesian activists carry skulls as a symbol of former President Suharto's tyranny marking the anniversary of the downfall of the military strongman in Jakarta, May 21, 2010.
AFP

All eyes will be on the conspicuously empty chair that will symbolize jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo's inability to collect the Nobel Peace Prize at the award presentation ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10.

But the spotlight will also be on the empty seats of nations, especially some of Asia's leading democracies that could skip the key event.

Having the dubious honor of being the only country in the world where a Nobel laureate is kept in prison, China has put unprecedented pressure on its Asian neighbors not to attend the ceremony.

Attending, Beijing warned them, would be tantamount to interfering in China's internal affairs, as Liu is a "criminal" who has been convicted of "subversion."

Liu's conviction stems from his calls for a clean government, transparency, democracy, and an end to the communist one-party rule of the world's most populous country.

China, now the world's second-largest economy after the United States, is also using its newfound economic clout to back up its diplomatic pressure on countries wanting to attend the Oslo ceremony. It has suspended talks over a free trade accord with Norway, which has backed the Nobel panel's decision to award Liu.

Whether to attend

Several of the estimated 60 countries that maintain embassies in the Norwegian capital have already said they will not attend, including Cuba, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Russia, and Vietnam as well as top Asian democracies Indonesia and the Philippines, reports said.

In addition, India, the world's most populous democracy, and another regional freedom campaigner, South Korea, are among a dozen or so nations still considering whether to attend or not.

Japan has shrugged off warnings from its giant neighbor and said it will attend. So will countries such as the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Australia, and Britain.

What is seen as disturbing by rights groups is that countries such as India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Korea—the leaders of democracy in Asia—are either wavering in their decision or will not attend the Nobel event.

Liu stands for values that are key pillars of these democracies, which possibly have a moral duty now to stand up for the principles of freedom they have fought for and achieved, some at a costly price.

India, which is eyeing a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, is concerned that attending the Nobel event will dampen its political and economic ties with China, whose Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is scheduled to arrive in New Delhi just a week after the Oslo ceremony.

"The decolonized world has learnt not to interfere in the internal affairs of each other," an Indian official was quoted saying by the Times of India.

India paid a high price after it hailed Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi for being awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace prize—it lost out on lucrative oil, gas and other business contracts from the military-ruled state, the newspaper pointed out.

But how can India provide global leadership when it wants a seat on the U.N. Security Council but at the same time refuses to live up to its ideals and speak out for human rights?

Perhaps, India's pursuit of the Security Council seat itself may influence India's ties with China, which is already in the elite five-member club and can veto New Delhi's bid.

"This seat is not worth occupying, should it require betraying universal respect to fundamental human freedoms and dignity," said the Asian Human Rights Commission, a  nongovernmental organization monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia.

Regional forum

And what about Indonesia, the world's third-largest democracy?

It will not attend the Nobel ceremony because its ambassador in Oslo has been summoned home to attend a regional democracy forum even though the envoy's participation is not mandatory, the Jakarta Post reported.

“As a democratic country, Indonesia is supposed to and should send an envoy to be there [at the Nobel ceremony], to support democracy and its symbols, including the Nobel Peace Prize,” said University of Indonesia international relations expert Hariyadi Wirawan, hinting at Chinese pressure on Jakarta.

Have the Indonesian leaders forgotten the price their people paid, including their lives, to bring democracy to the country after President Suharto's 32-year dictatorship, which was one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century?

Now that democracy is flourishing at home, the largest Southeast Asian nation can help the region by backing any efforts promoting freedom, rights groups say.

Similarly, the Philippines, which endured years of brutal dictatorship under President Ferdinand Marcos, cannot disregard the Nobel ceremony if it wants to defend freedom.

No one can better illustrate this than the current president of the Philippines.

The assassination of President Benigno Aquino's senator father in 1983 sparked the People Power revolt, which his mother Cory Aquino led and which resulted in the ouster of Marcos.
  
Today, Cory Aquino is hailed by Filipinos as the mother of their country's democracy.

South Korean Dissident

South Korea also cannot waver in defending the ideals of the Nobel prize, experts say.

Has Seoul lost sight of the fact that former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung was a Nobel Prize recipient? 

Like Liu, he was once a dissident and imprisoned as he fought authoritarian rule.

Kim was also tortured, kidnapped, sentenced to death, and exiled for his long-standing opposition to military dictators.

Political pressure from China has the potential to disrupt particularly the close economic ties between Seoul and Beijing, but "Korea's place is with the democracies at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony," said Oh Kongdan, an East Asian expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"Liu Xiaobo’s life and work represent the political values that Koreans have worked so hard to gain. Korea now has a chance to give something back to the Chinese people: a model of human rights."

With hardly a week left for the Nobel Prize ceremony, it can be hoped there will be fewer empty chairs for foreign diplomats at the event, demonstrating to Beijing that the world does care for human rights and freedom.