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Democracy not in retreat

18 roger mitton reuters
A voter shows her inked finger after casting her vote during the general elections yesterday in Permatang Pauh, 350km north of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photograph: Reuters

They always say you wait an hour for a bus and then two come along at the same time. So it is that after focussing on a new book about this region last week, another hefty tome comes along that is equally thought-provoking – and equally irritating.

Called Democracy in Retreat, it was penned by Joshua Kurlantzick, a self-proclaimed Southeast Asian expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC.

He writes: “Many of the countries that are regressing from democracy are regional powers, including Thailand, the Philippines and others.”
The reason, he says, is that democratic traditions in such countries are being adversely affected by things like the rise of China, the lack of solid economic growth and the impact of Western financial crises.

Because his proposition flies in the face of everything we see around us in this region, it instinctively makes us wonder if perhaps he’s spotted something we missed.

Wikipedia, however, notes: “Kurlantzick has frequently been taken to task for alleged inaccuracies in his reporting, especially his preferred mode of ‘first-hand’ accounts where the only support for his claims is in his notes.”

That makes it easier to put the boot in, for really his book is utter nonsense. As HL Mencken would say: “It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

In reality, the countries he names, Thailand and the Philippines, as well as others in this region, have witnessed an astonishing flowering of democracy over the past three or four decades.

Thirty years ago, the Philippines suffered under the despotic Ferdinand Marcos, Thailand was ruled by General Prem Tinsulanond and Cambodia was under the yolk of a communistic regime imposed by Vietnam.

Myanmar, or Burma as it then was, slid increasingly into decrepitude under the barmy General Ne Win. While Laos and Vietnam were both helmed by brutal totalitarian regimes.

General Suharto’s military dictatorship still held sway over the region’s powerhouse, Indonesia, and tiny Brunei had an absolute monarchy that brooked no dissent.

Only Malaysia and Singapore held regular elections, but they practised a form of “disciplined democracy”, which meant that any oppositionist who showed signs of garnering substantial support was crushed.

Indeed, crushed is putting it mildly when one recalls how Devan Nair, Francis Seow and JB Jeyaretnam were treated in Singapore. Even Marcos and Ne Win never strangulated opponents so ruthlessly.

So, let us now jump forward to today. All these countries are progressive multiparty democracies with largely successful, if not booming economies.

The only real exceptions are Laos and Vietnam – and even they have progressed to the point where their inept and venal one-party regimes know they are living on borrowed time.

So Kurlantzick’s claim is hogwash.

Indeed, while the speeches of most bureaucrats would put killer bees to sleep, one given last month in the United States Senate put the kibosh on this retreat from democracy nonsense.

Reviewing the current situation in this region, Joseph Yun, Washington’s point man for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, noted Indonesia’s “democratic transformation”.

He also highlighted how, after decades of oppressive rule, Myanmar’s military is now becoming “a modern force subordinate to civilian rule that respects human rights and is held accountable for its actions”.

He then revealed that President Barack Obama will visit Brunei for the East Asia Summit in October and will go on to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kuala Lumpur.

It will be the first visit to Malaysia by a sitting US president since Lyndon Johnson in 1966. And Obama will be going not long after yesterday’s elections, the 13th since Malaysia became independent.

So how is democracy in retreat in Malaysia? Or in Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines?

No, Mr Kurlantzick, the fact is that this region is a beacon to the world when it comes to democratic progress. Put that in your notes and eat them.

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