Asia’s democracies have remained embarrassingly quiet over the atrocities being committed in Syria. If Asia wants to be taken seriously, it needs to step up.
The Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus is committing de facto genocide on his people as evinced by the brutal killing of civilians in the city of Homs and throughout Syria.
Just like his father the late dictator Hafez al-Assad, who killed as many as 40,000 people in Hamas in 1983, Assad is hanging onto power through the barrel of a gun. While the U.N. Security Council continues to be stymied by Russian and Chinese vetoes, a placard held up by a Syrian boy that pleaded “if you don't help us, we will all be killed” encapsulates the worsening Syrian nightmare that has already resulted in the deaths of at least 7,000 Syrians.
Yet while all major Western governments including the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany and the European Union have condemned Assad’s bloody crackdown, most Asian governments, including its major democracies and key NGOs, have remained eerily silent. This is a travesty and a shameful chapter in the international community’s response to the ongoing Arab Spring that began early last year with a people's power uprising in Tunisia.
Asian states, and particularly representative democracies such as India, Japan and South Korea, as well as relatively new democracies in Southeast Asia such as Indonesia, have often practiced “stealth diplomacy” when it comes to human rights and the promotion of democracy.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, comprising ten states with widely divergent levels of political freedoms, has long preached the virtues of the “ASEAN way” or non-interference in domestic affairs. And as the recent turn of events has shown in Burma, with the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi – Asia’s best-known democracy advocate – dialogue and engagement can certainly produce marginal improvements.
Yet if Asia's rise is going to be about more than accelerated economic growth and vested commercial interests, it’s time that Asian governments spoke out forcefully against the brutal genocide in Syria and in support of the yearning for freedom and democracy worldwide, including in their own backyard.
Many Asian commentators lament the lack of an Asian presence in key international organizations, the Westernization of global norms, and 500 years of Western political, technological, and military dominance. They have a point. But if Asians want a greater voice in the global village, and to emerge as key decision-makers on core global issues, they can no longer hide behind the shell of non-interference, quiet diplomacy, and tepid responses to gross human rights violations. The notion that somehow “Asian values” can’t co-exist with or complement universal values is condescending in the extreme since it flies in the face of successful Asian democracies with advanced economies such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Asia can retain indigenous identities and heritages while becoming wealthy, free, and globalized.
There is of course plenty to criticize the West over – there’s no denying that economic and commercial interests are never far from the surface of Western diplomacy. However, in one critical area, they’ve had the upper hand: speaking out and acting forcefully when dictators have turned on their citizens, taking the lead in international responses such as the NATO operations that ended Muammar Gaddafi’s reign of terror in Libya.