Features | Security | East Asia

Asia’s Syria Shame

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.

By Chung Min Lee for

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.

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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.

Asian forays into the broader Middle East and the Gulf States over the past three decades have been driven by the need to secure oil and gas supplies, as well as the desire for access to the huge market for construction companies. Nations such as Japan and South Korea import the majority of their oil from the Middle East. In 2010, for example, Seoul secured a contract with the United Arab Emirates to supply multiple civilian nuclear reactors worth $40 billion over a 30-year cycle. And China, of course, is fast becoming the world’s largest oil consumer, bringing with it an aggressive energy security policy.

But if Asians continue to perceive the Middle East and the Gulf States as simply one giant oil depository, they would be engaging in a remarkable replay of the colonial mentality that prompted the Western powers’ initial forays into Asia at the end of the 19th century. No one denies the importance of secure oil supplies, especially at a time of global economic uncertainty and sanctions against Iran. But Asian governments must understand that long term relations with the people of the Middle East must also take into account their aspirations for good governance, greater social justice, woman's rights, political freedom, and civil liberties.

The 21st century is often heralded as the beginning of an Asian Century, based on Asia’s role as the world’s economic driver. Yet unless Asia comes to terms with its own huge democracy deficits, such as China’s growing mismatch as the world’s second largest economy with a one-party dictatorship and suppression of human rights, totalitarian regimes such as North Korea, de facto military regimes in Pakistan and Burma, and pockets of authoritarianism throughout the region, Asia’s ties to the global village will remain incomplete.

Equally important, Asian leaders, governments, and civic organizations must speak out on behalf of the brave people of Syria, and indeed of those throughout the Middle East and the Gulf States, who are clamoring for rights that many Asians didn’t dare to dream of two to three decades ago.

Democracy, freedom, and human rights can coexist with flourishing economic, commercial, and cultural interests – they are hardly mutually exclusive. The sooner Asian governments and their citizens wake up to this reality, the sooner one can applaud Asia’s core contributions to democratic citizenship and an Asian Century that truly embraces the global village – and the spread of democracy and freedom.

Chung Min Lee is Dean of the Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University, Seoul and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asian Security at the IISS (London). From 2010 to 2011 he served as an ambassador for international security affairs in the administration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.