Activists air concern over threats to democracy in Asia

By Jim Gomez, AP

MANILA, Philippines — Democracy has gained ground in Asia since the Cold War’s end but governments should continue efforts to eradicate remnants of past dictatorships and guard against a resurgence of military regimes like what happened in Thailand, activists said Wednesday.

Governments and regional groups like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should also consider more effective solutions to long-standing problems like the human rights repression in military-ruled Myanmar, according to the activists.

“Democracy is fragile. Democratic processes suffer a setback with the military coming to power. We have to be vigilant,” Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy told reporters on the sidelines of a Manila conference on Asian democracy.

More than 100 pro-democracy advocates from across Asia attended the three-day conference to examine the health of democracy in the sprawling region.

While Indonesia and the Philippines have made democratic gains after emerging from dictatorships, other Asian countries like Singapore, Burma, Laos and Vietnam continue to face challenges like the lack of a credible political opposition that is essential to a functioning democracy, Rainsy said.

Thailand is an example of how a democratic state could backslide following a coup there last year, he said.

The Thai military ousted Thaksin Shinawatra on Sept. 19 while he was abroad in New York, accusing him of corruption and abuse of power. It installed an interim government, temporarily banned all political activities and drafted a new constitution.

The military pledged to hand power over to an elected government within a year after seizing control, and polls are scheduled for December.

Ramon Casiple, a Filipino participant to the conference, said governments in countries like the Philippines and Indonesia that have emerged from past dictatorships should continue efforts to eradicate repressive laws that limit civil liberties.

Ordinances approved during the era of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was toppled in a nonviolent “people power” revolt in 1986, continue to be invoked by officials to stop street protests and trade union strikes.

Many activists at the conference condemned Myanmar’s continuing indifference to mounting calls for it to fulfill a promise to democratize and urged the ASEAN, a 10-member regional bloc that includes Myanmar, to re-examine approaches that have failed to bring changes there.

Myanmar, which is also called Burma, has been strongly criticized by Western governments for its dismal human rights record. ASEAN has adopted a policy of engaging rather than isolating Myanmar, arguing Western sanctions have failed to nudge its military junta.