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New models of democracy are needed to end oppression in Asia

Elections, a vital part of democracy, have become opposition-free in many Asian nations
A man rides past an election awareness poster displayed along a street ahead of India’s upcoming general election, in Hyderabad city on March 26.

A man rides past an election awareness poster displayed along a street ahead of India’s upcoming general election, in Hyderabad city on March 26. (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 04, 2024 04:04 AM GMT
Updated: May 02, 2024 06:40 AM GMT

Democracy was introduced in most Asian nations at the end of Western colonialism as the best available form of decision-making and state governance. But as would happen to any other imported Western concept, democracy would also undergo a socio-cultural adaptation rendering it ineffective and authoritarian in Asia.

Colonial rule was primarily concerned with the appropriation of wealth and power for the benefit of a few feudal lords. The democratically elected Asian rulers, who followed colonizers, continued with the same governing tools and laws, which effectively exploited the poor and ill-educated masses.

The regime changed, but oppression and exploitation continued as in colonial days.

Most new nations that emerged in Asia after the Second World War also pieced together controversial laws and rigid regulations to keep their citizens under control so that the new rulers continued unabated with the appropriation of wealth and power.

A caucus of powerful families controls governments in most Asian nations now. Over the years, some have been mesmerized to believe that a “family dynasty” must be voted into power for their welfare.

Democracy is on its deathbed in the poverty-stricken continent, like an abused and crippled young woman writhing in pain.

"As leading global economies on the threshold of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the two superpowers are hungry for more resources"

As that pathetic situation continues, the continent was given a few lessons in democracy by the United States and China last month from their experience of a capitalist and state-capitalist world order, respectively. 

As leading global economies on the threshold of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the two superpowers are hungry for more resources. Thus, they need new pastures for new raw materials.

South Korea’s Seoul hosted the US-sponsored third Summit for Democracy from March 18 to 20, and Beijing held its third communist version on the same dates. The collision of dates of the two global summits was not accidental but deliberate to score brownie points to edge each other out from resource-filled nations.

If the Korean summit was meant to market the imperial “rule-based order” of the US administration, the Chinese one was directly linked to single-party rule, which advocates progress through “disciplined citizenry.”

The Beijing conclave with “Chinese characteristics” categorically stated that democracy in China was thriving. Li Shulei, head of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC), lauded the party leadership for helping “China's democracy” to serve “Chinese modernization.”

The US-conceived summit was nothing more than a platform to strengthen and advance the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims to isolate and checkmate China.

The Chinese and Korean summits on democracy took place as half of the world's nations have seen a decline in at least one democracy indicator in the last five years, as stated by the Global State of Democracy Initiative which studies democracy in 173 nations.

In 2021, Washington-based Freedom House in its annual “Freedom in the World” report declared that “tyranny was winning” worldwide in place of democracy because governments are behaving as if they are not accountable to their people.

"It has become next to impossible for the free media to operate in many Asian nations due to the high-handedness of governments"

Asia has not been an exception to this dwarfing trend. Authoritarian and dynastic governments in Asia have found new ways to learn from and support one another to amass wealth for themselves and their cronies, using international institutions. Even the pandemic in 2019 was not spared.

As a result, civil society, free media, and the private sector have stooped to new lows. 

In the most populous India and the world’s largest Muslim nation Indonesia, civil society that stood in the way of unmindful extraction of natural resources has been singled out and punished.

It has become next to impossible for the free media to operate in many Asian nations due to the high-handedness of governments. The state allows only its version to get published and those who dare to question are “shown their places” with harsh jail terms.

Elections, a vital part of democracy, have become opposition-free in many Asian nations. Starting with the Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia, which till July 2023 hosted one of the longest-serving leaders in the world as its prime minister. The opposition was conspicuous by its absence in the January polls in Bangladesh, the eighth most populous country in the world.

In Pakistan, the ruling establishment, with the tacit support of the powerful army, did all it could to prevent the opposition party of former prime minister, Imran Khan, from contesting the February elections this year.

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ensured that the opposition will be weak in this year's general election.

Opposition leaders are constantly facing harassment by law-enforcement agencies that report to Modi. Federal investigation agencies are working overtime to find criminal charges to lay against opposition party leaders and critics and detain them.

"Corporate giants have always supported draconian laws that are aimed at keeping citizens in check"

The outgoing Indonesian president Joko Widodo has bent constitutional norms to improve the poll prospects of his son who was the vice-presidential candidate in the February polls in the Southeast Asian nation.

In Sri Lanka, the interim government of Ranil Wickremesinghe, which assumed power after people overthrew the elected government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2022, has been postponing polls endlessly, citing paucity of funds in the bankrupt nation.

In many Asian nations, private business houses have become the backbone of the economy due to their contribution to GDP. However, the captains of these houses have time and again rallied behind autocratic and dynastic regimes to facilitate their perpetual extraction of natural resources.

With their clandestine network, corporate giants have always supported draconian laws that are aimed at keeping citizens in check.

Whether controlled by elite families like in the case of the Catholic-majority Philippines or by vested interested religious groups as in India and Iran, the role of citizens has been reduced to voters in the Asian avatar of democracy.

Democracy in its current form has failed to make administration and decision-making participatory, or at least end poverty and the evil of wealth being appropriated by a few at the cost of millions.

By 2022, Asia accounted for nearly 60 percent (4.75 billion) of the world's 8.1 billion population and surpassed all other regions in the world in producing billionaires. The continent stood tall with 951 billionaires while North America settled for 777 and Europe 536.

At the same time, according to the Asian Development Bank, 1.7 billion in Asia and the Pacific are poor, living on less than US$2 a day. Of that, at least 320 million live in extreme poverty.

If democracy is to have a firm footing in resource-rich Asia, governments and international agencies should push to democratize its wealth. However, the superpowers and their financial empires work assiduously to avert any move that will make people decide on their resources — land, forests and water sources.

Democratization of resources should become the primary step to democratize a nation.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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