Today's date:
Spring 2005

Democratic Contagion Hits ASEAN Countries

ANWAR IBRAHIM was deputy prime minister of Malaysia until September 1998, when he was dismissed by then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, tried and jailed on what he insists were trumped-up charges. Earlier this year Mahathir's successor freed Anwar from jail.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - The economic crisis of the late 1990s was not without its dividends. It was the shock treatment that east Asians needed to make them see the need for reform. The countries that learned their lessons and reformed their economies are now poised for greater heights. Before the crisis, the resistance was strong against calls for transparency in governance and business. That has changed somewhat.

There is some consensus-in words if not yet deeds-that opacity is bad for business, be it the business of governing or the business of making money.

This is not to say that forces resistant to reform and unfriendly to democracy have simply surrendered. On the contrary, they have tried to strengthen their positions. The recent decision by the Myanmar junta to extend the house arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a case in point.

Other countries in the region pay lip service to democracy while their policies ensure an increasingly uneven political playing field. The press remain submissive to the ruling cliques, and fundamental liberties are severely curtailed.

Yet, a clear dividend of the crisis is that the struggle for freedom has taken on a regional character, like the crisis itself. Civil society activists are forging ties across boundaries to press for democracy and human rights-a fearful development for the governments of the 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),which cling stubbornly to their outmoded doctrine of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of member states.

ASEAN is replete with internal contradictions. Some of its members-Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand-have made giant leaps into mature democracy. But they have not made serious efforts to influence their less democratic partners or to put democracy on the asean agenda. The ASEAN leaders are proud of their tradition of consensual decision-making, but that is exactly what keeps the group inert and unwilling to set a standard of democratic governance that it could impose on member states.

But freedom has a demonstrative effect. ASEAN leaders must wake up to the reality that democracy is, more and more, asserting its presence in the region. The democratic mind is nurtured by social and political activism and by unlimited access to information. We are seeing the birth of an informed aseanese community that is becoming increasingly aware that authoritarianism limits its choices. It is increasingly evident to the people of this community that only democracy is capable of meeting their demand for greater choice.

The desire for freedom is universal, and the appetite for it is whetted when one sees others enjoying their liberties. Malaysians are more economically successful than Indonesians, but they envy their southern cousins' political freedoms. They dream of the day when their television, radio and newspapers are as free as those found in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. This Malaysian dream is shared by other aseanese living under tight autocratic regimes.

It was the Cold War that brought the original five ASEAN countries together as a purely political grouping subscribing to "peace, freedom and democracy." With the end of the Cold War, it was inevitable that economics would take precedence over politics. And as the economies of the region become more interlinked, so do the fates of the ASEAN peoples.

ASEAN is diverse, but there are fundamental cultural, economic and political meeting points. The desire for wealth is a common motivation, and it has resulted in high economic growth in the region, albeit uneven. But economic well-being has an effect unintended by some of the asean policymakers. It nourishes the desire for things higher than mere physical comfort. Such higher needs are associated with freedom.

Current ASEAN leaders want to set limits to their cooperation. They should recognize that they are daydreaming. Deepening economic integration will bring with it many unintended consequences. It is not only the ASEANese desire for democracy, openness and freedom that they will have to grapple with. It may not be too long before the peoples of the region begin to see themselves as members of a single community. When that happens, the seed of asean greatness will have been sown.