February 11, 2005
"Asian democracy" - an oxymoron?
The decision of King Gyanendra to sack his elected government and take over absolute control has caused a bit of a flutter amongst diplomatic and security circles. While there are those who support his actions in the belief that he is more likely to win the war against the marauding Maoists, the central issue that I wonder about is whether democracy in Asia is really feasible.
Without venturing too far away from India, Pakistan's democracy is a sham. Bangladesh is forever held hostage by the two ladies. Sri Lanka witnesses terrorism in the north and (until recently) a petty squabble between the Prime Minister and the President, who were both from different political groups. Myanmar is no better than Pakistan although the government was very soft with General Than when he visited India a month ago. Bhutan is still experimenting with democracy and King Jigme Singye Wangchuk certainly has India's support after his action against ULFA terrorists last year.
Effectively, among India's six immediate neighbours, only two, Sri Lanka & Bangladesh, have a functioning democracy. We step outside a tad. You can reel off the names. Very few strike you as being a democracy. Towards the west, there're only two types of "archies" - monarchies and anarchies, as witnessed in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and the rest of the Middle-East. Asia's "Big Brother" China looms over the East. Show me one chap who calls China a democracy and I'll either prove he's a moron or that he works for the Chinese government. For all of Pakistan's best efforts to get it into the SAARC, I think China would be a misfit in the grouping.
Further south east takes us to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Singapore and Malaysia have been one-party countries for the last 40 years and so I am convinced they cannot be categorized as democracies. The argument that it isnt the fault of UMNO or the PAP that the opposition doesnt get any seats is not really a valid or fair one. You only need to look at the fate of Anwar Ibrahim and Chee Soon Juan to see what I'm trying to imply. Also, correlating the prosperity of Malaysia and Singapore (and China too for that matter) to the question of whether there is a real need to worry about the type of government is quite a self-serving one. I am yet to come across any study which suggests that you can be prosperous only if you're a (pseudo) dictatorship. The two, in my opinion, aren't necessarily related in the short term.
In the long run though, aside from the fact that we're all dead, citizens will demand more say in governance. In a world where knowledge of political, social and economic developments across the world is so easy to obtain, firewalls or no firewalls, they are perfectly in cognizance of the extent to which their right to a free, just and equal opportunity political system is being denied.
India must have the gumption to stand up and fight for democracy, a form of government that seems to be going the way of the dodo in Asia. But it must do so first in its neighbourhood. Cancelling the visit to Bangladesh for the SAARC summit was obviously not a great idea since the meeting presented Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a great opportunity to read the riot act out to Nepal given that events in Nepal took a turn a few days before the scheduled start.
The PR for India has not been too good. India has been called a bully. Bangladesh's establishment is obviously enraged about the cancellation, especially when security was stated as the reason. Pakistan has been quick to pounce upon India's decision and now wants the rules changed such that one nation's absence doesnt necessarily result in the summit being cancelled. Frankly, they all have a point.
It is only after we show that India can manage a fractious neighbourhood that we can legitimately aspire for the international spotlight.