“A Hope for Better Democracy in Asia”
Seoul, Korea – On this day 15 September 2018, the Asia Democracy Network welcomes the celebration of International Democracy day extending appreciation and solidarity to all democracy advocates who stand for democratic principles around the world. On this auspicious occasion it’s vital to acknowledge regression as well as progress on the front of defending and promoting democracy. This year, we are at a critical juncture where it is necessary for democrats in the region to renew our commitment to uphold and further promote and maintain democratic culture.
This year, the region had a tremendous victory in democracy advocacy when Malaysians took to the polls to vote out the 60 year reign of the country’s ruling party. This change came about through peaceful, free, and fair elections opening up an opportunity for enhancement of democratic principles. The region also noted the positive development toward political change in Pakistan, with a new popular government taking rule however, much is still left to be done.
As there is much to celebrate, there is also much to be concerned when it comes to democracy. Globally we are seeing a regress in the public’s faith in democracy and its principles. Which raises much alarm as with the decline of democracy we are witnessing a decline in upholding fundamental rights. Asia is no exception, in our region we have seen an increase of authoritarianism, political turmoil, public disharmony and insecurity. The advancement of technology has brought about insecurity and intolerance in different countries.
Despite benefits of new technological platforms, global society is faced with challenges as it has become the breeding ground for intolerance mainly targeting minorities and the vulnerable including in the countries that have been hailed champions of democracy. However, there is still much hope for the sustainability of democracy. That hope would be the strong civil society that is still present across Asia ready to continue the movement for human rights and democracy. Civil society is vital as it is in the strategic position to convince the government in upholding its democratic commitment in their national policies and international relations.
The rising economic and political influences of neighboring countries like China and India should be treated as an opportunity to consolidate and strengthen democratic principles in the region rather than framing it as pragmatic that harms current democratic practice. Civil society must step up the game and become creative in the approaches and as a region take the initiative to set the agenda that is customized to Asia’s current needs in progressing democracy.
Finally, in commemorating International Democracy Day ADN stands in solidarity with the oppressed and persecuted for expressing their free thoughts and choosing to take action for what they believe in. We stand with you and we are committed to continue the fight for freedom and justice for all.
Maldives is currently engulfed in a democracy crisis as President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency on February 5th 2018. It was due to the mounting popular protests demanding for the immediate release of nine high-profile opposition figures, two Supreme Court judges and 12 pro-opposition legislators who were arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned. The Supreme Court of Maldives ruled that the arrests were unconstitutional and politically motivated, and ordered the restoration of those seats. However, such a ruling was dismissed; and instead, a 45-day-long state of emergency granted President Abdulla Yameen an absolute discretion to stifle dissent, as well as an opportunity to consolidate his power. Maldives will hold their elections on 23 September 2018 and due to conduct flaws there still remains a question of whether the country can return to democracy.
With the lack of democratic political culture and respect for the rule of law, democracy in Bangladesh has taken another downturn. The incidents of arbitrary arrests, wrongful convictions and imprisonments and the cases of extrajudicial killings have continually increased. The last general elections were held in 2014 and was boycotted by the major opposition party and many other civil society organizations. As a result, the voter turnout was averaged about 22% which indicated a steep decline compared to the previous elections. Such a trend of deteriorating democracy poses a threat to the quality of the upcoming 2018 general elections and fueling continuous conflicts between the ruling Awami League Party and the opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Furthermore, there has been escalated repression of freedom of expression as thousands of student protests were violently quashed by the police force in early August. The country is inevitability on the track to absolute authoritarianism if there is no immediate correction on its current human rights and democracy situation.
Despite its regularly held elections with a competitive multiparty system, democracy in Pakistan has always been highly fragile due to the strong influence of its military and security in some part of the countries. Leading up to the country’s general election held on 25 July this year, it is reported that there have been multiple blatant attempts to rig the election. Although the Pakistani military denies its interference in politics, several candidates from the civilian political party, Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), were threatened and coerced to switch to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) which is backed by the military; and the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who belongs to PML-N was arrested and detained under the charge of corruption. In addition to the disproportionate political influence of military forces over the civilian authorities, the dissenting voices of the non-governmental and civil society organizations are kept muzzled on the pretext of national security and non-Baloch racial minorities are continued to be attacked as the reports of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings have mounted. As the candidate from PTI, Imran Khan was elected as the new Prime Minister in this general elections in July, the prospects of democracy in Pakistan has a long and winding way ahead of it.
India is often referred to as the world’s largest democracy with its peaceful transfer of power every five years. However, its efficacy has been questioned due to the series of continued incidents involving candidates bribing voters, use of force to sway the votes and its violence against dissenting journalists and religious minorities. Especially under the current Narendra Modi government, journalists are often faced with criminal charges and accusations and forced to take down their critical stories against the government under the Information Technology Act which criminalizes the information that causes “annoyance or inconvenience.” Accordingly, India fell three ranks on the World Press Freedom Index to 136th in 2017 and its democracy index rank plunged 10. rank on the EUI 2017. Despite the regularly held elections and peaceful transition of power, the challenge remains to overcome its use of violence against the religious minorities and dissenting journalists.
Afghanistan is torn by prolonged conflicts and insurgencies. The country continues to struggle to maintain a democratic government that was mandated by the Bonn agreement in 2001. Since the first elected democratic government in 2004, the country made significant improvements towards democratization and built its political system. Political participation increased as well as respect and understanding of universal suffrage, basic freedoms, and the importance of a peaceful political transition. However, the political situation has changed and Afghanistan’s democracy is at risk. Violence that continues to ensue in the country strips the opportunity to build a functioning democratic government. Despite civil and military aid and assistance from the international community, the Afghan continuously lose its territories by the insurgencies. The growing presence of radical arms groups worsen the situation and force the country to tremendous challenges in its electoral circle. Afghanistan general elections is scheduled on Oct 20th, 2018 there are high expectations for a new parliament and Presidential elections will be pushed forward ending the dual leadership within the government bringing hope to the country.
As the third largest democratic country in the world Indonesia, struggles to deal with rising intolerance. Due to this, the democratic index (EUI 2017) fell by 20 points. The rise in intolerance in society, especially against religious minorities, was famously highlighted through the blasphemy cases against Ahok and Meliana. Political freedom and free speech continues to be oppressed as there is a steady increase in crackdowns for the use of hashtags leading up to the April 2019 elections.
Although Singapore is known for its economic success, the state of democracy has not improved. Despite its multi-party parliamentary system, The premiership and its political scene has been dominated by People’s Action Party (PAP) since its independence in 1959. Since the country adopted a parliamentary system, elections are regularly held but it lacks a structurally independent election authority. It has observed growing support for the opposition parties as it gained a record-breaking six seats in the 2011 general elections, however, opposition figures are faced with structural difficulties since over 90% of the seats in the parliament are held by PAP and the rest are often filled with unelected MPs who are nominated by the prime minister. There remains a long road ahead of Singapore with its democratic challenges as the recent presidential election was held uncontested with only one candidate without any opponents.
Cambodia has experienced a rapid collapse of democracy leading up to the general elections held this year in July. Prime Minister Hun Sen has deprived the people of Cambodia fundamental political rights and disregarded democratic principles. To consolidate power, the Hun Sen government cracked down on free media, dissolved the major opposition party the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), arrested dissidents, human rights defenders and high profile opposition political leaders. The July general elections were uncontested and resulted in the consolidation of a de-facto one party system in Cambodia. Civil society actors and human rights defenders continues to be under high surveillance by the Hun Sen government and subject to prosecution for any dissent.
As the country has been dominated for decades by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), which is one of the longest ruling parties in the world, there is bleak prospects of reviving democratic ruling in Vietnam. Arbitrary arrests and convictions against dissenting journalists, bloggers and activists have continued to mount and at least 28 activists were arrested and convicted without due process in 2018. In 2017, according to Human Rights Watch, over a hundred people were imprisoned for criticizing the government, protesting, or joining unsanctioned religious or civil society organizations. With its absence of free and fair elections, democratic political culture and respect for human rights, the mounting numbers of dissenting citizens in Vietnam are exposed to grave danger as the authorities continue to crack down media outlets and peaceful protests.
After Rodrigo Duterte won the presidential elections through populist rhetoric in 2016, democracy and human rights has declined significantly in the Philippines. The country faced its worst grave human rights crisis as his ‘war on drugs’ campaign resulted in thousands of alleged extra judicial killings. In addition, the Chief Justice of its Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes Sereno who has been speaking against President Duterte’s drug campaign, was ousted in May 2018 through an archaic process called Quo Warranto. It was an obvious transgression of due process and disregard of the democratic rule of law. Also, one of the Duterte’s most prominent critics, Senator Leila de Lima still remains in detention since last February in 2017. Such incidents indicate a great impairment of judicial independence and the rule of law which is a significant setback of democracy in Philippines, compromising the fundamental democratic principles and human rights.
2018 marks the fourth year of being ruled under the military junta in Thailand. Prospects to revive democracy in the country looks bleak as there are no concrete signs of returning to a civilian government. The ruling junta government has repeatedly postponed the general elections with the latest date set for February 2019, which still remains uncertain. Freedom of expression in Thailand has also been restricted under military rule, which was shown in the protest held in Bangkok on 22 May. After the protests, 15 individuals were arrested, convicted, and restricted from participating in further public protests under the Public Assembly Act that prohibits political gathering of five or more persons. The arrests and convictions clearly indicate the Thai government’s disregard toward the freedom of expression and assembly. As the space for civil and political movements shrink with such arbitrary arrests and detainment, Thailand faces a severe backsliding in its democracy and mounting public discontent towards the junta.
Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a country with one political party, Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) which has dominated the country’s politics in all aspects. Every political decision is reserved for the General Secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) and the members of Politburo of the party; and there is virtually no substantial opposition force to counter-pressure them. Furthermore, the space for civil society is closing and civil liberties are severely restricted. In 2017, there were three citizens who were convicted for their participation in protests held in Bangkok and their activities on SNS, criticizing the government. The trial was held privately and they were sentenced to 12, 18, and 20 years of imprisonment respectively. With fear of retribution, dissenting voices in Laos are losing its safe and open space and those who participate in unsanctioned gathering of any kind can face a lengthy imprisonment. In 2012, internationally acclaimed community development worker, Sombath Somphone, was stopped by police and taken away and he has not been seen since. Despite his abduction being recorded by CCTV, the Laos government continues to deny any involvement or knowledge of his whereabouts. The speculation is that Sombath was abducted for his involvement in the 9th Asia-Europe People’s Forum held in 2012.
Putting an end to a decades of authoritarian rule, Myanmar took its first steps to a democratic transition in 2015 when elections were held. The National League for Democracy (NLD) under Aung San Suu Kyi, with its landslide victory, came to power ever since; however, the country’s prospect of democratic consolidation remains uncertain as the recent crisis with military operations against Rohingya aggravates. In 2017, hundreds of thousands Muslim Rohingya minorities were forced to flee the country due to the military security operations against them in the Rakhine State, where systematic violence including killing, sexual assaults and forced disappearance were committed. According to the recent report, at least 6,700 Rohingya including at least 730 children under the age of five were killed within a month after the violence broke out in August 2017. As of April 2018, over 780,000 refugees fled to Bangladesh and the camps and settlements in the region continue to expand. The government of Myanmar has drawn influx of criticisms for condoning such systematic violence against the ethnic and religious minority.
As the country marked its twenty-eighth anniversary of its first democratic election, Mongolia has been consistently referred to as a democratic and free country. Mongolia faces challenges to its well institutionalized democracy due to its widespread political corruption, police brutality, as well suppression of dissenting media outlets, and harassment of journalists.
Japan is known to have one of the most stabilized democratic systems of governance in Asia with its respect for free and fair elections and freedom of expression and assembly. Although the country has rarely been under external scrutiny with regard to its institutionalization of democracy, there are concerned voices as the Abe government maintains its close relationship with nationalist right-wing extreme organizations. Multiple anti-war protests arised regarding the security-related bills under the Abe government, as its controversial security bills are arguably deemed unconstitutional. There were multiple reported cases of censoring media, prohibiting them from voicing unfavorable commentaries about the Abe government. Japan economic strength in Asia is maintained in Asia, and shall be able to become influence actors in promote democratic principles to the countries related to the Japanese economic shadow.
In 2013, President Xi Jinping consolidated his power for a lifetime after the parliament voted to scrap term limits for the president. In addition, there has been no sign of alleviation with regard to the country’s widespread and continued human rights violations. China has the world’s most strict online censorship as well as even more strengthened ideological control over education and media. China continues to have an increasing track record to crackdown on dissidents and suppressing freedom of expression. Furthermore, as the revised Regulations on Religious Affairs came into effect this February, the right to freedom of religion especially for Tibetans, Uighurs and unrecognized churches has been endangered.
South Korea had along, turbulent history marching towards democracy. Despite the country respect the free and fair elections and basic civil liberties, it is often observed that there are problems in underdeveloped political culture. However, the country also experienced a peaceful democratic transition of power with the impeachment of the former President Park Geun-hye over corruption through the three months long citizens-led candlelight movements, achieving a record of 77% voter turnout in 2017 Presidential election. Starting from the peaceful protests in 2016 to the impeachment process in 2017 was proof of strong democratic institutions in South Korea. South Korea continues to strive to play a leading role in democracy promotion and human rights throughout Asia.
Throughout last three generations of dictatorship, North Korea remains as one of the most notorious dynastic totalitarian regimes left in Asian region. As an effective one-party state, every political decision and activity is done through the Korean Workers’ Party and its supreme leader and any other form of political opposition is strictly banned. The government restricts all civil liberties and the dissents are heavily repressed. Systematic human rights violations are pervasive and surveillances, arrests and persecution against dissenting citizens are widespread. North Korean society is strictly isolated and closed to the international society, and the words of defectors have indicated that freedom of expression, assembly and association are not recognized and starvation, forced labor and torture in custody are still very common in North Korea. However, there are there are ongoing efforts to culminate the talk of peace between the North and South after the historic summit between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In in April, and the recent second round of family reunion in August 2018.
With its political bodies devolved from the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong has enjoyed relatively substantial level of civil liberties and the rule of law. However, there are grim prospects of reinstating democratic principles and institutions since the High Court of Hong Kong ruled to disqualify and oust four lawmakers in July 2017, which was largely due to their pro-democracy inclination and their failure to ‘sincerely take the oath of the office.’ In addition, Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal affirmed the lower court’s role in imposing sentences in the case of “large scale unlawful assemblies involving violence,” which was followed by sentencing imprisonment to the protest leaders of the Umbrella Movement in 2016. Such ruling gives lower courts the ability to impose even longer sentences to the citizens who participate in protests against pro-Beijing authorities. Despite the country’s ostensible protection of freedom of the press, expression and assembly, Hong Kong has shown a downward progression in consolidating its democratic principles and substantiating civil liberties.