Democracy And Human Rights:
The ASEAN Situation

Dr Syed Husin Ali

ASEAN countries have different social and political systems. Brunei is practically an absolute monarchy and for a long time there has been no election there. The Sultan, who is the richest man in the world, is also Prime Minister and Minister of Finance of this little but wealthy kingdom. Some of the world's longest political prisoners - a number being detained without trial for more than 20 years - hail from Brunei. Most of them were from the Peoples Party of Brunei (Partai Rakyat Brunei) who were arrested after the party won almost all seats in the first and last election that was held there in the mid-sixties.

Indonesia is under military rule; General Suharto has been president for more than 30 years, and his family has been identified as being one of the richest in Asia. Although there have been quite regular elections there, only 425 out of 500 members of Parliament are elected, while the remaining 75 are appointed, mainly from the armed forces. In addition, another 500 are nominated by the government to form the Consultative Body, and it is this body that elects the president. With 575 nominated members always guaranteed to be on his side, Suharto can easily continue to be president for life.

Singapore prides itself with a highly developed economy and an efficient administration. Although elections are held regularly about five years once, they are often one-sided. The government leadership is authoritarian and does not tolerate the opposition, some of whose members have been detained for long periods. Chia Thye Poh, a leader of the now defunct Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front), was robbed of his freedom since before the mid-sixties and was only very recently permitted to travel overseas. Those not detained have been known to be hounded and bankrupted through legal suits, even after they had been defeated in elections.

Both Philippines and Thailand have known many military regimes before, which had been guilty of several bloody onslaught on their own people. They are now striving hard to practice their own versions of Parliamentary democracy, with all its shortcomings. In Malaysia, since 1955, two years before she attained independence, general elections have been held regularly, almost five years once. This is consistent with her claim of practicing parliamentary democracy. But there are four emergency declarations which are still enforce, besides many draconian acts (which will be described later). There is also a tendency for the executive to dominate over the legislature, judiciary and the media. Authoritarianism is on the rise.

Among the new members of ASEAN, Burma is notorious for her blatant breach of democratic principles and basic human rights. The military regime refused to give up power despite the fact that in May 1990, the National League for Democracy (NDL) won a sweeping victory in Burma's national election, collecting 82 percent of the votes and 90 percent of the seats. Since then many newly elected members of parliament from the NDL have been detained or forced into exile; it is believed that some have even died under very suspicious circumstances. The NDL leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is still under house detention. As a result of repressive policies of the Slorc, thousands from the minority groups (like Rohingyas) have been forced to flee the country as refugees. Many, including women and children, have been driven into forced labour in certain government-sponsored projects.

As for Vietnam and Loas, they had not in the past shown much respect for civil and political rights, because under their communist regimes, their countries were closed and their people controlled. Now they are slowly opening up and beginning to recognise some aspects of basic human rights, although, for historical reasons, the Vietnamese approach and practice are quite different from those of many of the old members of ASEAN.

To untrained eyes, elections that are held by the ASEAN states give the impression that there is full freedom and democracy in this region, as often claimed. It should be noted, however, that more often than not these elections are neither clean nor fair. The ruling parties often blatantly take advantage of their control over government machinery. The periods for campaigning in the snap elections that they call are usually very short, between nine days and two weeks, as in the case of Singapore and Malaysia. During these periods, in fact, at most times, public political rallies cannot be held without police permits or supervision. It is difficult for opposition parties to hold public rallies or talks, while ministers from the governing parties can easily address massive crowds under the pretext of opening schools or hospitals and launching projects of all sorts. There is also widespread use of money politics and other forms of corruption, particularly by government candidates, who are often rich and well-financed. In some cases, like in Indonesia, the army and police are blatantly used as constant threat to remind the people to return the government back to power.

While the ruling parties are able to make full use of the television to spread their propaganda, opposition parties are denied access to them, not only during elections but all the year round. Daily newspapers are controlled or owned by parties in government or their nominees. Throughout the year, and more so during election time, they are manipulated to boost government parties and discredit those in the opposition. In some instances, the printed and electronics media would not give space for opposition manifestoes to be published, even as paid advertisements. At the same time, a number of publications (including dailies) have had their permits withdrawn or banned, the moment they appear to assert their freedom and begin to be critical of government.

Over and above all these, there are also several laws and regulations that are undemocratic and constitute violations of basic human rights. In Indonesia and the Philippines, there are so-called anti-subversive laws that can carry maximum death penalty, while in Malaysia and Singapore there is the draconian Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial. Besides, there are also various other repressive laws, such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA). The ISA empowers the Minister for Home Affairs to detain a person without trial for indefinite periods, renewable every two years, and does not allow for habeas corpus. As for the PPPA, among other things, it provides for all publications to obtain permits from the Home Ministry annually, and that the permit may not be renewed or revoked at any time if conditions stipulated are breached. Quite often the ISA and the PPPA have been abused to curb the lawful political opposition.

In Malaysia and Singapore, for example, there are numerous other laws, which seem to cover every sector and every group, such as workers and students. Many of these laws are legacies of the colonial past, although they have been amended or consolidated after independence, but a few have been recently introduced. For instance, there is the Police Act, which prohibits assembly without permit; the Official Secrets Act, which provides for mandatory jail for publishing any document classified as secret; the Societies Act, which controls and regulates societies and organisations (both political and non-political); the University and University Colleges Act, which restricts activities and movements of students and staff at institutions of higher learning; and the Trade Unions Ordinance and Industrial Relations Act, which regulate and restrict movements and actions of workers (to form unions or to take industrial actions).

Other than repressive laws, internal weakness of unions and opportunism among many of the labour leaders, there is another factor that cripples the workers' movement. This is the presence of migrant workers. In Malaysia alone, there are estimated to be more than two million such workers, mostly from Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Philippines. A large number of them have been legally registered, but a significant portion still remains illegal. Although local workers, especially those in plantations and some in manufacturing sectors continue to be exploited with low pay, poor living conditions and insecurity of employment, the plight of many migrant workers, especially those in isolated areas, are even worse. It is well-known that the illegal workers can and have been used by the employers in plantation and construction sectors to depress wages of local workers, or even to displace them, and to undermine the labour unions. At the same time, legal migrant workers are neither well protected nor accorded the right to organise or be absorbed into local trade unions.

A large section of the workforce are women. Generally, as a result of economic and cultural factors, women in Malaysia, particularly those in rural areas and in the plantations, tend to be regarded as being of lower status than men. It is gratifying to note that more women, partly owing to their own struggle, have made headway into the economic, political and social areas that used to be the domains of men. But, in many cases women continue to be harassed in their work places and mistreated in their homes. It is feared that a large number of them have been trapped into prostitution and so forth. There have been more cases reported of migrant women being molested, raped or forced into prostitution.

The different laws, regulations and conditions mentioned above demonstrate the extent to which democracy and human rights have been marred. Actually, democracy and human rights are very much related to the question of wealth and distribution; they will be undermined whenever there is gross concentration of wealth. In almost all developing countries, the elites left by the withdrawing colonial forces have continued to accumulate wealth. They are now joined by others who have become the new rich. ASEAN is a fast growing part of the world where more wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a smaller number of people. The present political and economic elites, who are increasingly merged into one, seem to be grabbing everything.

As a result of concentration of wealth, the gap between the rich and the poor becomes wider. The gap grows even wider the longer such ruling elites remain in power. A root cause of concentration of wealth is corruption; for the ruling elites, corruption is the main source of wealth. These elites normally try to distribute a bit of what they have accumulated in order to win elections rather than go through the use of force. Nevertheless, quite often, on failing in elections some of them resort to the use of the army and police. Conflict is sharpened whenever the side which wins uses state machinations to suppress, bankrupt and ruin the losing side.

For the poor and exploited, democracy and human rights must be translated into rights to have balanced and enough food, adequate shelter, health care and education for the children. If we deny these rights by raising the prices of social services through privatisation or corporatisation, for example, then we will in fact be denying them their fundamental rights. Poor people cannot afford lawyers or take time to demonstrate. There are families who have to struggle to have a decent living even when both husband and wife are earning or when the head of the family has to do two types of job in a day.

There is a rather unhappy state of democracy and human rights in ASEAN. It is well-known that democracy and human rights issues have been used by the West, especially the United States, to put pressure on certain Third Word countries. They have also linked up trade and aid with human rights. Many Third World countries, including those in ASEAN, have felt such pressure and oppose it. Their leaders argue that western standards of democracy and human rights cannot be applied to developing countries, which have their own specific needs and realities. Furthermore, they contend and quite rightly too, that the US itself suffers from certain questionable human rights records. One of the worst violations of human rights is against the blacks, a large number of whom live in dire poverty and under serious discrimination. The US also practices double standards, being punitive towards Iraq, for example, but protective towards Israel; just as in the same manner, it is highly critical of Slorc, but well-disposed towards Suharto.

The superpowers, and the US in particular, tend to manipulate human rights issues to undermine governments that they dislike. They tolerate feudal monarchs or military rulers who chop off heads of political dissidents or exploit women so long as they are regarded as friends. On the other hand, they impose prolonged economic sanctions which cause death and disease among innocent children and women in countries where the defiant leaders are considered enemies. Fortunately, there is now emerging in the US and other western countries, those who are sincere in their efforts to establish democracy and human rights. These are our true friends. For ASEAN and the rest of the Third World, genuine human rights should be striven for on our own accord, as something good and necessary for human dignity. It is a great shame if we are forced to improve our human rights record only as a result of Western superpower pressures.

In conclusion, we cannot deny the fact that democracy and human rights are strangled when people, especially women and children are massacred, chased away from their own lands and homes, imprisoned without trial and subject to repressive draconian laws; or when elections are never held, or even if they are held they are not clean, free or fair, or when the rights to oppose or dissent are denied. Many of these acts are perpetrated, though in different permutations, in ASEAN. Undeniably, they are cruel and cause a lot of human sufferings. They also go against the noble values upheld by various religions and different cultural traditions that predominate in the region. Now, more than ever, the duty of the people, political parties, people's organisations and non-governmental organisations has grown in urgency. They have to join hands in the struggle to establish genuine democracy, human rights and a Just Society in ASEAN.

Ang Hiok Gai, Lecturer, Department of Computer Science, Inti College
3, Jalan SS15/8, 47500 Subang Jaya, Malaysia.
Tel: 03-7320902, ext. 11

KdP Net
Fri, 14 Nov 1997

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