Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Can You Teach Democracy?

Ben Bland reports that at last week’s assembly of the World Movement for Democracy, in Jakarta, it depends on who you ask.

By Ben Bland for

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.

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.

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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.

Alongside the rhetoric of the main speakers, the organizers, the National Endowment for Democracy, had put on a series of practical workshops focused on regional issues or technical skills such as online advocacy.

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Some found them more helpful than others.

‘These events are of little use in terms of knowledge but are good for promoting your cause and making contacts,’ Cheng said.

Seelan Palay, a young political activist from Singapore, was more upbeat. ‘I’ve been to many similar conferences before and have learned at least one thing each time, whether it’s a new skill base or approach,’ he said. ‘Things like how to bend the rules or go around them and using video and the internet to further your cause.’

In a city-state such as Singapore, where the ruling party dominates politics and the media and an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship pervades, democratic and social activism can be a lonely pursuit.

Palay said he took strength from meeting others engaged in the same battle. ‘It’s good to know other people are going through similar struggles elsewhere,’ he said.

It was certainly rousing listening to people like Tapera Kapuya, a former Zimbabwean student leader who ‘was abducted in the middle of the night from my student hostel, electrocuted, made to stand in a bucket of acidic water, beaten and dumped on the outskirts of Harare’ before being exiled from university at the age of 21 and continuing his fight in South Africa and Australia.

‘My story is the same for many young people struggling for democracy across the world,’ he said. ‘But young activists are finding creative ways to organize themselves without violence.’

For delegates such as Abdi Suryaningati, a board member of Indonesia’s Civil Society Alliance For Democracy, the benefits of these sorts of gatherings are less spiritual than technical. She said that her organization, which promotes political education and empowerment, had learned from Brazilian NGOs about the practice of ‘participatory budgeting,’ where activists help citizens to hold local governments to account over their budgets. Now her organization assists other NGOs from around Asia.

Elsewhere, the attempts to foster cross-border links sometimes seemed like a dialogue of the deaf. During a session on the wider lessons that could be learnt from Indonesia’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy, Khin Maung Win, deputy director of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a Norway-based broadcaster, rose to quiz the panel of eminent Indonesians.

Many of Burma’s neighbours, he said, accept at face value the junta’s argument that a strong military is vital to keep the country together given the profusion of separatist conflicts. But didn’t Indonesia’s experience show that a democratic government was actually better placed to resolve such issues?

One of the panellists was Agus Widjojo, a former general who was at the forefront of Indonesia’s drive to take the military out of politics. Having been sent by Yudhoyono to Burma to speak to the generals after they crushed the anti-government protests in 2007, he seemed the ideal person to answer this question. But he responded obliquely.

‘We can’t export democracy, it has to have self-ownership,’ he said. ‘Although we’d like to see democracy flourish, we understand this limit.’