Members at the Second Meeting of the Inter-Regional Dialogue on Democracy in Jakarta on Tuesday 1 May agreed that Asean has not been successful in bringing about a uniform shift toward democracy as it currently had only two member countries that could claim to be democracies: Indonesia and the Philippines.
Other members still have either monarchial or authoritarian governments with just one ruling party. Cambodia and Singapore are examples of one-party states.
In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen seized power from the then co-prime minister Prince Ranariddh in 1997 and has been in power since, while King Norodom Sihamoni’s role is largely ceremonial. Brunei Darussalam remains an absolute monarchy, whereas Vietnam and Laos are ruled by communist parties. Both Malaysia and Thailand have applied formal democracy, but political parties are harassed continuously by the military or the ruling regime.
Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said that Asean had not been given a mandate to democratise those countries. “Asean can only bring gentle and soft reminders to them without a clear written mandate from all the members. The changes will also depend on the other member states, whether or not they want to pursue democracy in those countries,” he said on the sidelines of the meeting.
Surin added that citizens in those countries should seize the democratisation process if that was indeed what they wanted. “We try to give them more space. After all, different countries have different systems,” he said.
Asean is not the only regional organisation facing such issues. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), for example, has never discussed democracy in its meetings. “Strangely enough, we have never talked about democracy even though one of our members is India, the largest democracy in the world,” said Saarc’s secretary-general, Ahmad Saleem, who was also present in the interregional meeting at the Asean Secretariat.
Besides India, Saarc’s members are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Ahmed said that the member countries had always avoided talking about “contentious” issues, and democracy was one of them.
Meanwhile, Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, warned that even though at the moment democracy was growing, many of the established democracies worldwide were becoming dangerously dysfunctional because the societies in which they existed were facing real and painful problems, and democracy couldn’t cope with them. He pointed out Greece, the symbolic birthplace of democracy, as an example.
“You can say that the problems are only temporary. That may well be the case. Possibly there are deep structural reasons in the countries. Democracies should be a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
“But in practice, it is the government of the people, by the people, but for special interests,” he said.