Asia needs ‘thinking’ media to avoid ‘Arab Spring’ chaos 

opinion April 25, 2017 01:00

By Kalinga Seneviratne
Special to The Nation

In December last year two UN agencies – UNDP and Unesco – organised a gathering in Bangkok called “Case 4 Space” where young activist communicators from Asia were brought together and largely addressed by westerners on how to demand space for their voices to be heard.

The event was coordinated by an activist group from the UK called “Restless Development” that was promoting a “restless” type of activism for “democratic” development – the same recipe of the “Arab Spring” uprising that has created chaos and mayhem in the Arab world. 

Attending the event as an observer, I was alarmed by the fact that these two UN agencies were able to organise this event in Asia without being scrutinised by Asian media or the governments in the region. The event was supposed to encourage youth participation in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but in the plenary sessions there was no discussion of Thailand’s “Sufficiency Economics” or Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness” – two ideas that Asian youth should be encouraged to consider. Instead they were being trained to demand their rights without being responsible for maintaining social and community harmony – two important aspects of Asian thinking on human rights and development. 

Asian media need to be in the forefront of advocating the SDGs in Asia using concepts of community building drawn from Asia’s own philosophical thoughts and traditions. Unfortunately, they have been blindly and uncritically feeding to Asian audiences Western media copy with all its prejudices and biases. 

There has hardly been any critical analysis in the Asian media of the Western “donor” driven ‘Arab Spring’ uprising and the potential of such “civil society” movements to create the same chaos in Asia. This, I saw, was what was being attempted in last December’s event. 

The Asian media should be questioning the motives of these civil society (NGO) movements funded by the West and ask whether it is creating “Dollar [or ruro] chasing democracy vendors” who are prepared to say whatever their donors want to, which may not necessarily be beneficial to realising the SDGs in Asia. 

These type of civil-society movements, exploiting youth restlessness, are already spreading to Asia and you can see this in the Hong Kong protests, in Cambodia and Malaysia. It succeeded in Sri Lanka in toppling a pro-China government in January 2015, which is now threatening to create social chaos in a country that was well on the way to social stability at the time after 30 years of civil war. 

Sri Lanka’s regime change was achieved largely as a result of a Western “donor” funded civil society movement that was able to convince the voters, especially the large electorate of youth that a new regime would bring “good governance” to Sri Lanka. In fact, it was the slogan under which President Maithripala Sirisena won office, but since then the country has seen the biggest-ever corruption scandal precipitated by the newly appointed governor of the Central Bank and a chain of other corruption issues as well. The government agencies in the meantime have been stuffed with those NGO activists that helped to topple the government, and the US and Europeans have started to meddle directly with government agencies and even the military, under the disguise of development aid to “improve governance”. It is suspected that US military aid is designed to wean away the Sri Lankan military from guarding national security and towards a supporting role for US military intervention in the region. 

The Western media that was critical of the previous regime of Mahinda Rajapakse has been silent about these developments in Sri Lanka, as there is a regime that is subservient to western geo-political interests. Thus, this is where the Asian media need to come in with their thinking caps and analyse the situation and its potential impacts on sustainable development in the rest of the region. 

The South China Sea (SCS) issue is another one that holds potential to derail Asia’s economic rise, while China’s new Silk Route projects hold much potential for permanently moving the world economic centre of gravity to Asia. Asian media need to understand this and not parrot Western media agenda. 

We should be analysing more how China’s funding of railways, ports and other infrastructure development could help Asia to become independent of Western economic meddling for the first time in five centuries. 

Instead, we are feeding a Western copy to Asian readers and viewers that often talk about Chinese designs to dominate the region. But, it is up to the Asian media to monitor these investments so that some of the projects where host governments are giving away 99-year leases to Chinese investors do not become a type of imperialism like the way the British annexed Hong Kong. 

Often Asian media refer to continuing US engagement in Asia as bringing “stability” to Asia without critically examining the US agenda in offering arms to the Philippines (under former president Benigno Aquino) and Vietnam. If you look at the US role in Asia such as in the Vietnam and Korean wars, and the current drumming up of disputes in the South China Sea, we need to question this assumption. 

Asian media should pay more attention to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s attempts to develop a win-win economic relationship with China rather than picking up a fight with them over the South China Sea islands. 

When former US president Barack Obama visited Laos in 2016 and pledged millions for clearing unexplored mines, the Asian media largely relayed Western media copy that projected it as a “generous gesture” by the US. They did not analyse what is undoubtedly the biggest war crime in history, the dropping of over 2 million tonnes of bombs on Laos during the Vietnam war which has impeded the country’s development for over 50 years and what reparations the US should pay for it. Since Sri Lanka defeated terrorism in 2009, the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) has been carrying out a “war crimes” witch-hunt against the country and now they are threatening a similar one against Myanmar over the Rohingya issue, while ignoring US and Nato war crimes in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, etc. 

Asian media should be monitoring and pointing out these double standards, while also monitoring development schemes in Asia, so that the peoples’ interests are served and not geo-political interests of major powers. 

We do not want an “Arab Spring” in Asia and it is the responsibility of Asian media to help avoid it. So I would like to end with the question: “Can Asian media think”? 

Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is a Sri Lanka born journalist and media analyst who currently works at Chulalongkorn University and coordinates a project called “Mindful Communication for ASEAN Integration”.