Can You Teach Democracy?
Image Credit: Flickr/LukeLuke

Can You Teach Democracy?


Joseph Yu-shek Cheng approached me in the ballroom of the Shangri-La Hotel in Jakarta, proffered his business card and thrust a leaflet into my hands.

‘People think everything is good in Hong Kong but we have to fight for our democracy,’ he said.

The bespectacled professor of political science, a member of the executive committee of Hong Kong’s Civic Party, was among more than 600 delegates from 110 countries who were in town last week to attend one of the world’s largest gatherings of democracy activists.

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Like many of the attendees at the sixth bi-annual assembly of the World Movement for Democracy, a non-partisan initiative funded by the US Congress, Cheng was keen to draw attention to his particular cause: the lack of genuine democracy in Hong Kong since it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

But, with many delegates from countries in much more dire straits than Hong Kong (Burma, Haiti, Iran and Zimbabwe, to name a few), Cheng accepted that he might struggle to be heard above the democratic din.

At a time when democracy, particularly of the variety promoted by the Unites States, has increasingly been called into question, the four-day conference, entitled ‘Solidarity across cultures: working together for democracy,’ sought to renew a sense of hope among those engaged in the often lonely struggle against human rights abuses and dictatorial rule.

Yet beyond the closeted world of Washington’s drawing room democrats, does such solidarity exist? What can a Hong Kong professor learn from a Congolese human rights campaigner or a Burmese journalist from a Zimbabwean student leader? And if, as the protracted Iraq and Afghanistan expeditions seem to suggest, democracy is best grown from within rather than imposed from outside, what can such cross-border gatherings hope to achieve?

In the keynote address, Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, made an impassioned defence of democracy in a region where it’s the exception rather than the rule.

Sceptics had argued that Indonesia would break up after the fall of Suharto, buffeted by a ravaging recession and torn apart by social, racial and religious tensions. But, Yudhoyono said, the advent of democratic rule had helped Indonesia to weather the storm, with the separatist conflict in Aceh resolved and the old question of a choice between democracy and economic growth proven to be a false dichotomy.

‘We have shown that Islam, democracy and modernity can grow together,’ said the president of the world’s largest Muslim nation, which is also the world’s third-largest democracy and the third-fastest growing economy in the G20 (after China and India).

However, he also warned over the limits of democratization, echoing the standard line adopted by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) about non-interference in other countries’ affairs: ‘democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. Ours is democracy from within.’

Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic Malaysian opposition leader, was more optimistic about the potential for cross-border democratization.

He attacked the promoters of ‘Asian values’ who say ‘democracy is not meant for all or that it’s not the best system because it’s a Western invention’ and called on ASEAN member states to do more to support democracy, for example by sending observers to Burma to monitor the upcoming election.

‘The shared history of oppression is an imperative for solidarity. We must remain resolute in our commitment to fight for democracy,’ said Anwar, who is currently on trial for the second time over sodomy charges that he insists are politically motivated.

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