Asian Democracies Under Threat

The popular uprising in Egypt could be an eye-opener for democracies in Asia as well.
By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
india-corruption-305.jpg An 'India Against Corruption' rally in New Delhi, Jan. 30, 2011.

Asians may rejoice over the fact that they had kicked out at least three corrupt dictators in popular uprisings very much earlier than the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last week.

Yet, they have reasons to worry.

Even though there are more democracies in Asia than the Middle East, many of them are vulnerable, fraught with complications and challenges.

As Egyptians prepare to embrace democracy, Asians are remembering their own popular revolts in Gwangju, southeast of Seoul, (1980), Manila (1986)) and Jakarta (1998) that led to the toppling of leaders in South Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia.

On Feb. 25, the Philippines will mark the silver jubilee of the "People Power" revolt that ousted president Ferdinand Marcos and restored democracy to the archipelago.

Twenty-five years after the uprising, the country has produced at least half a dozen coup attempts, and is sinking deeper into poverty, and its institutions remain weak.

Claims of corruption and shady deal-making continue to dog the government, and military intervention remains a threat.

In Indonesia, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's reform efforts are stymied by fierce battles with ousted dictator Suharto-era politicians, and tensions are expected to intensify before the 2014 elections.

This may limit the scope for substantive policymaking in the world's most populous Muslim democracy, which is also grappling with escalating religious intolerance following the beating to death of three followers of a minority Islamic sect and the burning of two churches in the past week.

Years after deposing their dictators, the Philippines and Indonesia "remain stifled by vested interests and corruption, and progress will continue to be glacial," said Roberto Herrera-Lim, director of Asia practice at New York-based Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm.

"Both countries are better off than they were under despots. There is more freedom, and economic growth has enlarged their middle classes. But the sense of lost opportunity is palpable," Herrera-Lim said.

"The revolts that shook the Filipino and Indonesian political systems sidestepped and maybe even reinvigorated powerful economic and bureaucratic interests," he said.

Strategic interests

As Egypt's Tahrir Square revolt fueled protests in other Middle East countries such as Bahrain, Iran, Yemen, Jordan, and Libya, the United States is trying to balance its strategic interests with its desire to encourage what President Barack Obama calls "universal values."

Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than "genuine democracy" will carry the day, Obama said.

But the U.S. leader needs to just look at the enormous problems dogging key American allies Pakistan and Afghanistan, into which Washington has poured immense resources to restore democracy.

The Pakistan government, accused of corruption and political infighting, has reeled from one crisis to another since the ouster of military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2008. 

Adding to the conundrum is the recent detention of a U.S. diplomat on possible murder charges that has strained bilateral ties and could trigger protests that Islamabad would struggle to contain, analysts say.

Massive corruption in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government in the decade since U.S.-led forces invaded Kabul and ousted the Taliban regime is another raging threat to democracy.

"Afghanistan is a long way from Egypt, and is a very different place, but the most important lesson flowing from Tahrir Square seems directly relevant to the American predicament in Central Asia: The quality of governance practiced by our allies matters, and we ignore it at our peril," wrote journalist Dexter Filkins for The New Yorker magazine.

While the immediate prospects of Egypt-like protests erupting in China or other tightly controlled states such as North Korea and Burma seem remote, the Cairo event can serve as an eye-opener for other corruption-tainted Asian democracies as well.

"Corruption can bring people on the streets even in democratic countries," warned Arvind Gupta, an expert at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

He said there could be repercussions in India, the world's most populous democracy, where there have been a lot of public resentment on corruption.

A spiraling graft scandal over the sale of telecoms licenses at rock-bottom price has paralyzed the nation.

In survey results released by a leading newspaper The Times of India this week, 83 percent of respondents said corruption was at an all-time high, and three out of five blamed politicians for it.

Less than a third believed the government was serious about the problem of corruption and almost all of those polled said graft scandals had tarnished the government's image.

Military takeover?

In Thailand, Southeast Asia's oldest U.S. treaty ally, the government continues to be saddled with fears of a possible military takeover—which would be the 19th actual or attempted coup since 1932—ahead of expected elections in the deeply divided nation.

Recently, army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has been publicly denying that the military plans to stage a coup, as rumors of the possibility swirled in Bangkok.

"But, remember that only days before the last coup, in 2006, the military was denying it had any such intentions. Don’t bet against it this year either," said Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asian analyst at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Many other Asian democracies risk facing the people's wrath, including those attempting to stifle debate, refusing to be transparent, clamping down on media freedom, mistreating minority groups, and abusing human rights.

"Egypt is a reminder that absent accountability and a mechanism for airing grievances can easily lead to tensions that simmer and then boil," warned Hong Kong's leading newspaper, The South China Morning Post, in a recent editorial.

"No government, China's included, should believe itself immune from a grass-roots desire for more accountability. The voice of the people has to be allowed to flourish and be listened to."


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