The will of civil society to promote and defend democracy in Asia

Guest article by Ichal Supriadi, Asia Democracy Network

A call for democratic unity

After decades of the promotion of and struggles for democracy, we are at a serious junction where the global rise in intolerance and populist authoritarianism has put the future of democracy in doubt. The Asian continent has not escaped this infection. Many countries that were once seen as champions of democracy are now struggling to call themselves democracies. Now is the right time for Asian democrats to assess how to counter current conditions and strategise together to devise a plan to deal with the challenges to democracy in Asia.

Asia prides itself on its rich culture and socio-economic and political diversity. However, these characteristics also bring the world’s most complicated democracy dynamics. The number of democratic states in Asia remains relatively low and in recent years there has been considerable change. The wide range of countries in Asia include those that can be categorised as having a high level of democratic success; those with a stable and vibrant democracy; those that are a transitioning democracy; those with slow progress or backsliding in democracy; and those that are home to the world’s most repressive authoritarian regimes, such as China, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam.

Several countries can be characterised as having ‘seized democracies’, such as Bangladesh, Maldives and Thailand, which have fallen under non-democratic governance, and the Philippines, where a populist leader disregards human rights, wages a ‘war on drugs’ and has been responsible for the extrajudicial killing of an estimated 15,000 people. Meanwhile an unstable regional security situation caused by war and terrorism has compromised democracy in Afghanistan and Pakistan to a point where the future has become unclear. Technological advancement has also had implications for democracy, as seen through the spread of intolerance through social network platforms in India and Indonesia, which has caused these country’s scores on the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index to fall. Dysfunction among the relevant regional intergovernmental bodies - the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) - because of principles and political issues has also brought democratic decline.

Civil society has a crucial role in defending democracy. But with limited resources, civil society struggles to develop an adequate and timely response to the current democratic regression. Thus far, most efforts have been at the national level in silos, or grouped around thematic advocacy issues, creating a movement in the region that is not in sync. Many times before in the Asia region there have been attempts to strengthen solidarity among these different parts and movements of civil society, and the most recent of these, focusing on democracy, has come in the formation of the Asia Democracy Network (ADN).

ADN’s niche is to strengthen democratic solidarity and unity to promote and defend democracy together. ADN’s main mandate is to bring together democracy advocates in the region and provide a space to exchange, collaborate and develop a joint strategy to respond to challenges with democracy in Asia.

After years of assessment through trial and error by regional civil solidarity groups, it was recognised that to sustain the democracy movement and have impact against the regression of democracy in Asia a two-track advocacy campaign is needed, focusing on democratic solidarity and democratic unity. Democratic solidarity refers to the strengthening of communication, collaboration and cooperation among civil society actors working to promote and defend democracy. Democratic unity refers to strengthening the unity of democratic nation-states and governments to promote and defend democracy at a high level. For ADN, the promotion of democratic solidarity has been a birthright mission, but we are planning to up the ante through working with democratic governments in Asia to strengthen democratic unity in order to promote good governance, fundamental rights and democratic principles.

Why democratic unity?

The democracy threat may seem isolated within national borders, but the symptoms of democratic decline have spread between neighbouring countries. As we have clearly seen with the spread of restrictions on civil society activities through draconian non-governmental organisation (NGO) laws in Asia, authoritarian governments and even more democratic ones learn from each other. Through this collaboration and information sharing, democratic space has been significantly reduced. It is time for democratic nations to utilise the same strategy to communicate and collaborate with each other and influence good democratic governance policies, open up more democratic space and become models and champions of democracy in Asia.

Why democratic solidarity?

Civil society has a significant role to play and is the heart of the movement to bring change and defend rights. When looking at the deterioration of democracy in Asia, civil society’s intervention to defend democracy can be vital. Asia has a vibrant and passionate civil society that is well organised and excellent in mobilising for a cause. However, the challenge is that the diversity of movements and elements of civil society work in silos, even when overall we are striving for the same cause. Therefore, democratic solidarity is important as it brings all thematic areas of focus, such as elections, human rights, land rights, media freedom, migrants’ issues and women’s rights, among others, to work in unison to maximise impact. When the movement works in unison, it will be difficult for bad leaders to ignore it.

How will democratic unity bring impact?

Democratic unity is an initiative to push back and ignite that involves national and international cooperation to increase multi-sectoral, coordinated effort, foster strategic dialogue between state and non-state actors to respond to the democracy crisis and create a new wave of democracy. Some of the keys steps that are being considered by ADN to promote democratic unity are as follows.

Renewing the commitment to and narrative for upholding democracy

The current suppression of and threats to democracy are being implemented through sophisticated means, including the use of new tactics that involve the deployment of resources and technology. The tactics are successfully implemented through the manipulation of democracy institutions and misuse of electoral processes to produce populist authoritarian regimes that apply repression in the name of national security, and as part of this, attack civil society. We need to realise that this regression is not a conventional nor ordinary threat and should not be treated as such. A new commitment by democratic forces that includes innovative strategy and a new attitude to approach the situation is vital. Democrats need to develop a new narrative about democracy that is relevant to the Asian context and that we can use effectively in our campaigns. There is a need to take an approach where democracy is more relatable to the people and governments.

Enhance people-to-people connections to strengthen national strategy

If people-to-people connections are increased, more collaborations will occur. This will prove the key to developing democratic unity and solidarity. It is vital for democracy actors to come together and communicate more efficiently, identify challenges and needs, and develop strategy that is capable of having an impact at the national level and is independent from government processes. ADN will create platforms to increase connections between people and motivate actors to work together on the regional, sub-regional and national levels. This initiative will be kicked-off through our South Asia Democratic Unity Forum to be held in late 2018, aimed at strengthening democratic unity in the South Asia region, and continue to other sub-regions. The programme of this is designed to gather together key pro-democracy figures from the region to discuss recent challenges to democracy and develop a strategic plan to respond. The ADN will further intensify the communication exchange among our eight regional members and partners, and with their 285 national and regional civil society organisations (CSOs), social movements and networks in Asia to build people-to-people connections and foster collaborations to defend and promote democracy together. 

Enhance solidarity to respond to democracy crises in the region

ADN identifies the following countries to be in serious democratic regression: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Maldives, the Philippines and Thailand. ADN plans to work to build solidarity through enhanced connections and consolidate actors inside and outside countries to provide support and tools to push back on the situation. The initiative will bring CSOs together in solidarity through movements and taskforces to strategise on national-level action plans. Activities will include the facilitation and coordination of platforms, advocacy of various kinds, fact-finding missions and support to human rights defenders.

Various regional organisations, which are members of ADN, have initiated their own actions to promote unity, relevant to their programme sectors. Their efforts have inspired the Asia democratic unity movement. These organisations hold periodical gatherings to discuss the challenges and strategies to overcome them. These events offer opportunities to develop new initiatives, undertake advocacy on democracy issues and recruit delegates as democracy allies. Some of these regional opportunities are:

In addition, the work of CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, brings civil society and activists together to strengthen citizen action and civil society throughout the world as well as organising plenty of initiatives on civic space.

Cultivating a new generation of democracy advocates

Young people have always been at the forefront of social movements and struggles. In the history of various democratic movements in Asia, young people have been the drivers and change-makers. However, we have assessed that the Asia region lacks the resources and programmes that can help cultivate young people to lead social movements. ADN believes that it is vital to develop young people, for the continuity of the movement and to sustain it in the future.

ADN and our allies are beginning to increase our activities related to young people to encourage a new generation to join forces in defending democracy. As well as the involvement of young people in the activities of each member organisation, a flagship programme also plans to develop democracy schools/academies. The programme will comprise two major activities: developing a curriculum on democracy and implementing it in the form of intensive training for youth leaders, and a short training course for informal youth organisations and those university students that have been inadequately engaged in democracy discourses.

The future of democracy

CSOs in Asia expect an increase of pressure when looking at the recent attacks on democracy in many countries. Between 2018 and 2020, there are a significant number of elections scheduled in Asia, including in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Japan, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Most likely, these countries will struggle with populist politics, intolerance and extremism as well as intervention from non-democratic countries in order to grab power. The Cambodian elections, held on 29 July 2018, should alert everyone to the use of flawed elections as propaganda, with the pretence of fake election observers being used to legitimise unfair polls.

Civil society acknowledges an ongoing paradigm shift but is frankly not prepared to combat the challenge. In order to prepare and strategise properly, there is urgent need for civil society to increase resources to bring people together, build a comprehensive strategy and offer a proper response. Civil society must be empowered and it must be ready to intervene quickly along all lines of advocacy. There is a need to connect those who are isolated and make adequate outreach to all areas of society in order to increase the number of democracy advocates. We need actively to engage and access media and make allies with both state and non-state actors to change the narrative of democracy and make it something that is more comprehensible to people and something that people help to achieve. We need to build understanding that democracy is our best option to protect our fundamental rights and keep our governments accountable.

At this difficult moment, CSOs also need to enhance their ability to help activists at risk, and utilise international platforms and the international community to strengthen their advocacy. All this can only be effective and bring maximum impact through democratic unity.

About Asia Democracy Network

The Asia Democracy Network (ADN) is a civil society-led multi-stakeholder platform of democracy advocates and human rights defenders dedicated to the strengthening of democracy and human rights. The regional democracy umbrella network was established in 2013 to consolidate Asia’s democrats to work together in promoting and defending democracy. ADN is comprised of eight key regional network organisations (affiliated with 285 national organisations) that work across the spectrum of issues related to human rights, democracy and development on the national and regional level.

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