Magazine article Insight on the News

Like the West, Asians Cherish Democracy

Magazine article Insight on the News

Like the West, Asians Cherish Democracy

Article excerpt

A remarkable gathering took place recently in South Korea that has profound implications for the future of Asia: a conference on democracy that brought together democratic leaders and activists from throughout the region. At a time when a number of well-known Asian autocrats have sharply questioned the relevance of democracy to Asia, the very existence of such a conference constituted a persuasive rebuttal and powerful reproach to those, such as Prime Minister Li Peng of China and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, who argue that democracy is irrelevant at best, and counterproductive at worst, in an Asian political context.

Among those present at the Forum of Democratic Leaders in the Asia-Pacific Region, organized by Kim Daejung of South Korea, were luminaries such as Corazon Aquino of the Philippines and Kamal Hussein of Bangladesh, all of whom had demonstrated a willingness to put "their lives I their fortunes and their sacred honor" on the line for democracy, as had the founders of the United States more than 200 years ago.

Thanks to their efforts, the cause of democracy has triumphed over the last several years in one Asian country after another. But if the battle for democracy in the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Cambodia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh has been won, the war for democracy in Asia as a whole is far from over.

In Burma, Vietnam, Laos, China and North Korea, the forces of repression remain unreconstructed and unrepentant. Sensing that they are on the ideological and political defensive, they have argued that communal obligations are more important than individual rights, and that authoritarian political systems are a necessary condition for economic growth.

In support of these assertions, they and their ideological fellow travelers in the West contend that poverty and pluralism mutually incompatible; that the requirements of security preclude the lack of discipline associated with democracy; that the absence of a Judeo-Christian tradition makes the religious soil of Asian a unsuitable to the political requirements of Western democracy; and that the relative calm of the status quo is preferable to the violent upheavals that may be necessary to establish parliamentary democracies.

Yet the experience of Asian countries with the principles and practice of democracy gives the lie to each and every one of these palpably pernicious pronouncements:

* India demonstrates that the poorest of the poor are capable of making sophisticated political judgments about how best to advance their own interests.

* South Korea demonstrates that democracy can strengthen, rather than diminish, a nation's security.

* Taiwan demonstrates that even a country without a Judeo-Christian tradition is capable of becoming a parliamentary democracy.

* Japan demonstrates that sustained economic growth can take place within the framework of a democratic political system.

* The Philippines demonstrates that peaceful political change is possible and that bullets are not always necessary in order to obtain ballots.

Are the people of Asia really uninterested in playing a meaningful role in the determination of their own destiny? Ask Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Khalida Zia of Bangladesh, Norodom Ranariddh of Cambodia and Aung Sang Soo Chee of Burma, and you will get the answer: Democracy is just as important to Asians as it is to Europeans and Americans. …

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