Asia Program Highlights (2007)

It was a particularly bad year for democratic development in Asia in 2007. East Asia’s two authoritarian states, China and North Korea, maintained or tightened political controls. In Thailand and the Philippines, long seen as two of Southeast Asia’s freest states, prodemocracy forces struggled to rebuild democratic institutions following the 2006 military coup in Thailand and stem the erosion of independent democratic institutions in the Philippines. In Burma, the regime’s brutal crackdown on the monk-led “Saffron Revolution” brought the world’s attention to the junta’s draconian response to calls for political reform.

In South Asia, Nepal was forced to postpone Constituent Assembly elections due in large measure to political demands from the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist. In Bangladesh, the military remained in power after staging a coup in the name of ridding the country of its corrupt political leaders. In Pakistan, General Musharraf faced mounting pressure from internal opposition following the ill-advised sacking of the Supreme Court Chief Justice in March 2007. Furthermore, the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto at the end of 2007 portends a period of even greater political instability and uncertainty.

Yet, the emergence of the lawyers movement in Pakistan, the 88 Generation Group and the “Saffron Revolution” in Burma, and the relatively independent blogosphere and basic level experimentation in public participation in China demonstrated the resilience of citizen demands for greater accountability, transparency, and participation in government.

In 2007, the Endowment continued to concentrate resources in one or two critical countries in each sub-region of Asia, while also expanding its programming in a handful of countries where democracy is losing ground.

In East Asia, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Endowment increased support for human rights monitoring, independent media, and a variety of civil society efforts addressing governance, transparency, accountability, and public participation issues in China. These organizations aim to foster more open policy debate on a wide range of governance failures linked to the closed political system, including

  • environmental and public health-related problems,
  • disability rights, land and property rights,
  • women’s rights,
  • worker rights,
  • access to justice, and
  • ethnic rights.

NED grantees took advantage of the takeoff of the Chinese blogosphere and the civic power of Internet communications. China Free Press successfully hosted several dozen outspoken websites banned in China, though even the U.S.-based sites faced near-constant cyber attacks. The website of the Princeton China Initiative’s China Digital Network program highlighted key moments when blog commentary in China went “viral” and jump-started nationwide public concern on issues that had been completely censored in the state-controlled mass media.

Following a disappointing sixth round of Sino-Tibetan talks in July, the Chinese government increased its control over Tibetan areas in China and stepped up its verbal attacks against the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan exile community responded to these challenges by increasing its outreach efforts to Chinese democrats and increasing the free flow of information into and out of Tibet. NED efforts in Tibet focused on human rights, free flow of information, and civic and democracy education among the Tibetan exile community.

In North Korea, NED continued to support radio broadcasting that seeks to provide North Koreans with independent news. Additionally, NED supported nascent North Korean-run democracy and human rights groups that are emerging from the growing North Korean population in South Korea, which has reached more than 12,000.

In Southeast Asia, the Endowment responded quickly to events in Burma following the emergence of the nonviolent “Saffron Revolution” and subsequent crackdown in August and September 2007. The Endowment provided emergency grants to

  • help rebuild networks inside Burma,
  • replace confiscated communication technology equipment, and
  • support the travel, communication, and emergency health needs of dissident networks in Burma.

In 2007, Endowment support played an important role in supporting the emergence of new forces for change in Burma. NED continued to support the work of large numbers of former political prisoners in Burma who have a proven commitment to democracy and maintain strong networks throughout the country. Given the highly restrictive political environment inside Burma and its lack of any independent media outlets, NED also assisted Burmese journalists and writers based in exile to serve as the voice of their colleagues inside the country who are unable to speak freely. These exiled journalists and their organizations seek to inform the international community, and, more importantly, readers and listeners in Burma, about the situation in the country and to offer support and solidarity to their fellow journalists who continue to struggle to expand press freedom in Burma.

In Thailand and the Philippines, NED expanded its programming to include projects which seek to address the erosion of independent democratic institutions and look to capitalize on recently or soon to be held national elections. NED also continued its work in Malaysia, which includes human rights monitoring and support for independent media. In Indonesia, NED supported union strengthening and corporate good governance initiatives. Vietnam programs included support for human rights monitoring, legal reform work, democratic civic education, and an Internet radio program.

In South Asia, NED expanded its programs in Pakistan, including support for civil society efforts to engage the public about fair election processes and democratic norms. The Interactive Resource Center worked with civil society groups, young people and the domestic election-monitoring group, the Pakistan Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, to use video and theater for outreach and building public awareness. The Endowment also provided assistance to human rights groups, including those focusing on:

  • labor and women's rights,
  • civic education for disenfranchised groups,
  • political party development,
  • business associations and free-market advocacy,
  • grassroots civic associations, and
  • independent media.

The Endowment also expanded the reach of its programs in the rural areas, where more than 70 percent of Pakistanis live. The Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organization expanded its women’s rights program in agricultural areas of south Punjab and the Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy worked in villages in the Potohar plateau, the heart of the military recruitment grounds.

Nepal suffered yet another setback when the nation’s Constituent Assembly election was postponed for the second time in 2007. Moreover, throughout the country, including in almost all major cities, the law and order situation deteriorated. The Endowment increased its support for the establishment of the rule of law and projects to increase voter awareness and understanding of the political process. The Antenna Foundation took advantage of Nepal’s extensive radio network to produce and air civic and democracy education programs.

The NED also supported modest programs in Sri Lanka to develop labor unions, strengthen civil society, and promote the role of the private sector in policy formulation, and in Bangladesh to promote women’s rights and participation in the political process.