[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]



Paris, Monday, February 15, 1999
Hard Times Embolden Asians to Raise Voices for Democracy

By David Lamb Los Angeles Times Service
BANGKOK - The economic crash in Southeast Asia has given a boost to the
region's democracy movements, as more people dare criticize their
governments and demand political reform as well as greater respect for human
For a region whose governments often have been willing to sacrifice the
personal liberties of their people for economic advancement, the drumbeat of
dissenting voices is a notable shift from traditional acquiescence to

It also is coming from unlikely places.

In Singapore, which is in recession after years of booming growth, Chee Soon
Juan is doing what no one has done for years - criticizing policies that, he
says, limit free speech and personal freedom.

The 36-year-old U.S.-trained scientist went on trial last Tuesday for making
a speech in public without a police permit. He was back in court the day
after finishing a seven-day jail sentence on similar charges.

In impoverished Vietnam, Tran Do, 75, a lauded revolutionary and retired
general, has released statements calling for free elections and the
abandonment of socialism. He has been kicked out of the Communist Party but
not put in prison, as he almost certainly would have been a few years ago in
a country where dissent is still considered a form of treason.

In Indonesia, a pro-democracy student crusade was formed last year around
complaints of economic mismanagement and forced President Suharto to resign
in May after 32 years in power. In recession-gripped Malaysia, a small
''people power'' movement stunned the government last fall with protests. In
Burma, where a generation of military rule has led to a near-collapse of the
economy, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi agitates for
democracy, defying the generals' attempts to silence her.

Human rights activists contend that, in varying ways, these demands for
political reform are rooted in economics. When times were good, governments
could - and did - maintain that individual freedoms had to take a back seat
if the single-minded march toward prosperity was to be sustained. The

economic meltdown - which began here with the collapse of the Thai currency
in July 1997 - released simmering political tensions.

''The economic crisis has caused tremendous pain, but there has been a
positive spinoff: It has given a lot of momentum to democracy and human
rights,'' said Somchai Homlaor, secretary-general of the Bangkok-based Asian
Forum for Human Rights.

In the past, Mr. Homlaor noted, ''governments didn't have to explain
themselves and people had no right to question. Today the situation is
abundantly clear. Politics and economics cannot be separate. They are
indivisible and they have to develop at the same time.''

With foreign donors increasingly tying aid to political reform and free
elections, political analysts say Southeast Asia's governments, except
Burma's intractable military regime, have become more susceptible to
international pressure. Governments have responded in a myriad of ways.

Vietnam has released more than 5,000 prisoners since last spring; most were
common criminals, but 11 were prominent dissidents. Singapore in November
lifted restrictions on Chai Thye Poh, who spent 32 years in various forms of
incarceration and detention as a suspected communist. President B.J. Habibie
of Indonesia announced the release of 42 political prisoners and said he
would do away with the hated anti-subversion law that permits imprisonment
without trial.

Elections are scheduled this year in Indonesia. Elections in Cambodia last
July are leading to a resumption of international aid. In Thailand, the
economic crisis resulted in a change of governments in November 1997 and the
military is lessening its role in politics.A new Thai Constitution places
increased emphasis on human rights.

President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines has gained regional credibility
for championing human rights. The reason: The Philippines has Southeast
Asia's most fully developed democracy and has escaped the meltdown in better
economic shape than its nondemocratic neighbors - a clear result of cause
and effect, Mr. Estrada says.

For the 10 nations of Southeast Asia, democracy is often seen as a risky
proposition that could threaten stability.

Because the region is so ethnically and religiously diverse, the doubters
say, too much agitation for group and individual rights could lead to chaos.
This argument holds that the well-being of the community is more important
than the unhindered freedom of the individual.