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Consider Democracy -- an opinion

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by Monzurul Huq

Japan recently turned down a request from Bangladesh to
provide financial assistance for an expansion project
planned by the state - run Bangladesh Television, citing
public concern about the lack of "political neutrality" on
the part of the government - controlled media.

It is the first time that the Japanese government has openly
expressed a desire to consider the issue of democratic
neutrality as a precondition for granting aid.

The Japanese decision, which affects aid for the current
fiscal year, is a particularly welcome sign. Even though
Japan adopted the ODA Charter in 1992, Japan has drawn
flak for being politically impotent in promoting democracy
when it hands out its yen.

Japan's Official Development Assistance Charter states
that in the process of providing financial assistance, "full
attention should be paid to efforts for promoting
democratization and the introduction of a free market -
oriented economy, and the situation regarding the securing
of basic human rights and freedoms in the recipient

Thus, Japan's decision to reconsider aid to Bangladesh
Television is a timely step in line with this principle.

This is, after all, the decade that saw democracy flourish
around the world. This not only happened in eastern
Europe, but also in Asia where some developing countries
until recently have had to endure the yoke of dictatorial

Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand
are examples. Yet underneath the veneer of democratic
practices, many of these countries are still shackled by their
dictatorial legacy.

In a number of developing countries, democracy only exists
in the form of periodic elections.   Once the leaders are
elected, they go back to running the country in the same
autocratic manner that their dictatorial predecessors did.

The government - controlled media in those countries are
not at all neutral, even on election issues. State - owned
television channels concentrate on footage of the heads of
the ruling parties and their henchmen. Watching television
news can easily leave the wrong impression that there is
only one political party. The state - controlled media in
Bangladesh is but one visible example of such abuse of
democratic norms.

But whether Japan's decision to reject the Bangladesh
government's request indicates that Tokyo is getting serious
about the issue of democracy in developing countries is
anyone's guess. Initially, one might think the answer is yes.

However, a closer look at Japan's recent ODA practices
suggests a very different scenario, from which it is possible
to conclude that Japan still has a long way to go to prove
that it is sincere.

Take, for example, Indonesia and Burma. They are two of
Japan's most important Asian partners in terms of ODA ~ 
yet they both are outrightly undemocratic in their political

Even though the junta in Burma recently released
outspoken pro - democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from
house arrest, there is no sign that a democratic constitution
will be promulgated any time in the near future. Despite a
clear - cut victory of democratic forces in the national
election held in May 1990), the military has refused to
surrender power to the elected representatives.

Fundamental human rights, especially among minority
communities, are routinely violated in Burma. However,
Burma stands out in one respect. Unlike other regimes in
developing countries, it makes no pretense about being
democratic. This puts Burma in a quite different position,
compared to countries like Indonesia.

Until recently Indonesia was at the top of the list of Japan's
ODA recipient nations for several years in a row. No
other developing country attracted as much Japanese
financial assistance. This is despite the fact that Indonesia
has one of the most oppressive dictatorial regimes in the
world today.

Restrictions, censorship, surveillance and corruption are
the norm in Indonesia.  Even more galling is the fact that
the country's economic policy is based on a patronage
structure that many reports say has made the president, his
wife, their children and a few others fabulously rich while
millions of their countrymen live below the poverty level.
This has been accomplished to a large extent with generous
financial support from Japan.

As long as Japan continues to be the leading donor for
undemocratic regimes like those that exist in Indonesia and
Burma, there will be questions about the respect given by
policy makers in Tokyo to the country's ODA Charter.

Giving the thumbs down to the request by Bangladesh
Television might be a signal that Japan is becoming serious
about the question of democracy in ODA recipient

If this turns out to be true, it will not only help people in
developing countries achieve genuine democracy; it will
also raise Japan's image as a true patron of democratic

(The author is a visiting lecturer at Yokohama National