In a year marked by democratic recession globally, the trajectory of democracy in Asia presented a picture that was less straightforward. Whereas the governments in China, North Korea, and Vietnam offered few signs of reform on the horizon, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan continued to offer robust examples of freely elected governments, vibrant economies, and strong civil societies. Moreover, the world’s largest democracy, India, and the world’s largest Muslim majority country, Indonesia, each held successful and largely peaceful elections.
Burma’s transition, touted only a year earlier as a remarkable breakthrough, appeared stalled, while the optimism sparked by Pakistan’s historic transfer of power from one elected civilian government to another faded as the country grappled with anti-government protests, critical power shortages, and heightened sectarian violence and general insecurity. Meanwhile in Thailand, political normalcy went into retreat once again after the launch of another coup.
At the same time, student-led protests in Hong Kong called for an open nominations process for the chief executive; despite failing to win government concessions, they demonstrated the challenges that Beijing will face in governing a relatively free and prosperous city undemocratically. And in Sri Lanka, the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Rajapaksa faced an unexpected challenge to its authority as a broad coalition rallied behind former health minister and long-time Rajapaksa ally Maithripala Sirisena in the run-up to elections in January 2015.
In China, President Xi Jinping consolidated his power and continued the crackdown on rights-focused civil society, arresting activists, lawyers, and journalists. Similarly in Tibet and Xinjiang, the Beijing government showed no signs of lessening its control. NED addressed these challenges by supporting partners to document rights violations, expand and protect rights of all citizens and ethnic groups, advance the free flow of information, promote democratic values, and call for reforms.
In 2014 the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry on North Korean Human Rights released a ground-breaking report that documented widespread, systematic, and serious human rights violations. The report propelled human rights to the forefront of international concern about North Korea and provided momentum for rights advocates. NED-supported programs capitalized on the report by increasing the free flow of information to break the regime’s blockade on information and strengthen international and regional support for human rights and democracy. NED-supported programs also increased awareness of democratic norms and practices, provided training for youth, and encouraged a broader coalition of South Koreans interested in human rights in North Korea.
While Vietnam benefited from improved relations with the West, the human rights situation showed no signs of improvement. Authorities continued to impose harsh punishments for dissent and target human rights defenders and press freedom activists. However, NED support has allowed nascent groups to organize, produce independent information, and network with human rights activists from other ASEAN countries.
In Burma, media restrictions, curbs on other civil liberties, and violence fueled by Buddhist nationalism against the country’s Muslim minorities underscored the fragility of the transition. Moreover, the country continued to wrestle with the long-standing challenge of reaching a comprehensive peace agreement with the ethnic nationalities. To address these challenges, NED supported programs that focused on the structural, cultural, religious, and political divisions that undermine national cohesiveness.
Thailand’s protracted political conflict was punctuated by another coup, which the military justified as the only way to restore order and create a “genuine” democracy. Although coups are not new in the country’s persistent cycle of elections, street protests, and military intervention, the restrictions on political freedoms and civil liberties this time are more severe and sweeping than in the past. With the imposition of martial law, the discarding of the constitution, postponement of elections, and clampdown on dissent, many fear that Thailand’s hard-won democratic gains of the past 15 years will be reversed. In this increasingly difficult environment, NED supported programs to protect human rights as well as foster understanding and practice of democratic norms and values.
Troubling developments in Pakistan cast doubts on the extent to which the country has taken advantage of the democratic momentum that resulted from its historic elections in 2013. These included incidents of violent extremism and religious intolerance, attacks against journalists and human rights activists, and a large anti-government protest. Even as the protest ended and the democratic system remained in place, the challenges confronting the country were still formidable at year’s end. To address these challenges, NED supported partners working to enhance citizen participation in democratic governance, address the rise of militancy, and foster public understanding and discussion of democratic institutions and practices.
In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa government continued to undermine democratic institutions, engage in rampant patronage and nepotism, alienate minority communities, restrict civil and political freedoms, and use military personnel to achieve its objectives while ignoring their complicity in a range of human rights abuses. In the lead up to the 2015 elections, many advocates sought to capitalize on events and look for opportunities to advance democratic development. NED’s support in Sri Lanka focused on encouraging greater community participation in the political process, promoting democratic governance and accountability, strengthening the rule of law, and protecting human rights.
To learn more about NED grants and grantees in Asia and around the world, explore the regional links on this site.
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