Why does the definition of civil society matter to the evaluation of political transitions in Asia?

The political configurations of constituent nations in the Asian continent have seen many significant changes over the last fifty years. The conclusion of the Second World War served as the precipitant event in transforming the erstwhile colonies in Asia into independent, sovereign nations. But, not all transformations have led to positive consequences. It would be simplistic to not look beyond official labels attached to governments in these nations. For example, classifying an Asian nation as a democracy or a dictatorship without taking into account the complex and often subtle political realities can lead to distorted perceptions. It is the objective of this essay to understand the real social, economic and demographic parameters that define a civil society and evaluate political transitions in Asia in this context.

Many analysts have pointed out that the salient features of a vibrant democracy are quite different from superficial symbols of a democratic setup as seen in many countries across Asia. For example, in countries such as Indonesia, Philippines, etc, which were colonies of European imperial powers until half a century back, the effects of the protracted period of imperialism are still evident in the way their institutions function. These post-colonial societies are at crossroads of history and have to overcome challenges in the realm of economics and politics if they are to emerge as competent players in the new world order. In order to make an objective assessment of political transitions in Asia, we need to adopt a broad historical approach to the subject. While wide-ranging references add to the merit of analysis, care has been taken not to indulge in standards of moral relativism when evaluating the state of democracy in this region.

To begin with, let us consider the case of East Timor and its turbulent road to independence. It is now accepted in hindsight that the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 was a blatant act of aggression, although it is a well documented fact that the western media did not strictly condemn the Indonesian atrocities in East Timor as and when it happened. By giving due consideration to facts and by applying universally accepted standard of human rights, it is obvious that the invasion of East Timor was perpetrated by an Indonesian leadership that is both authoritarian and ruthless (Fox, 2004). More than two decades later, with Megawati Sukarnoputri contending for political leadership of the country, the dark legacy of authoritarianism is still part of the fabric of the political establishment. This can be discerned from the fact that Megawati made no concessions to Timorese independence (not even local level autonomy) in the lead up to the elections. This goes to prove that democracy and the instrument of elections alone are not sufficient for imposing acceptable standards of freedom, equality and justice in a country, which goes to strengthen the thesis that superficial labels and nominal institutions does not imply a functioning democracy (Razack, 2006). This is true as much in Asia as anywhere else in the world.

Also, the catastrophe in East Timor cannot be divorced from the broader equations of power and dominance. While the close diplomatic relationship between the United States of America and Australia is well known, the role assumed by Indonesia as a subordinate agent of these two more powerful entities is not often mentioned in political scholarship. To elaborate further, for nearly forty years since 1965, the Australian government supported the atrocities carried out by General Suharto in neighbouring Indonesia. Jonathan Fox draws out this case of hypocrisy in an emphatic style thus,

“During the long years of Suharto’s dictatorship, which was shored up by western capital, governments and the World Bank, state terrorism on a breathtaking scale was ignored. Australian prime ministers were far too busy lauding the “investment partnership” in resource-rich Indonesia. Suharto’s annexation of East Timor, which cost the lives of a third of the population, was described by the foreign minister Gareth Evans as “irreversible”. As Evans succinctly put it, there were “zillions” of dollars to be made from the oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea”. (Fox, 2004)

Another important aspect of post-independent history of this region is the blatant disregard for legislative power as well as the judiciary. As a result, several leaders have misappropriated their executive powers to impose emergency rule over the citizens and civil institutions, making the institution of democracy a total farce. While several justifications have been forwarded for the application of emergency powers, none has been accepted as valid by neutral observers of the international community. This infringement on legal and parliamentary authority had happened in almost all nations of the South East Asian bloc, including Indonesia and Philippines, which is ironical considering the fact that these two nations were supposed to be the more advanced in the region. The invoking of emergency powers by President Fidel Ramos in Philippines remains a classic case of abuse of power (Razack, 2006).

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