2013 was a politically turbulent year in Asia. Civil society faced increasing government repression and harsh crackdowns on political dissidents in a number of countries, including China, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Elections across the region brought uneven results—a peaceful transition of power in Pakistan’s general elections was a significant step in strengthening democracy in the country, but disputed election results in Cambodia and Malaysia led to protests and protracted political conflict. Societies in Bangladesh and Thailand remained divided along political lines ahead of general elections in early 2014. In 2013, NED’s Asia program focused on identifying new opportunities to advance democracy while bolstering programs in the priority countries of Burma, China, North Korea, and Pakistan.
Burma’s government continued to take steps to expand political openness in 2013, including loosening media restrictions and releasing political prisoners. However, the rise of Buddhist nationalism and outbreaks of deadly violence against the country’s Muslim minority underscored the fragility of Burma’s transition. Ethnic and religious reconciliation continues to be one of the government’s biggest challenges, and will be central for the success of Burma’s transition towards democracy. To address the issue of ethnic and religious reconciliation, NED supported programs promoting tolerance and pluralism, strengthening community networks and freedom, and raising awareness about Burma’s heavily persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.
The democracy movement in China suffered a series of setbacks in 2013. Despite some promise of political reform from incoming Communist Party Secretary General Xi Jinping, the government made clear that it would not tolerate independent citizen action on issues deemed politically sensitive. A widespread government crackdown on dissent resulted in the detention of close to 50 individuals involved in the New Citizens’ Movement, a loose network of activists calling for anti-corruption measures and rule of law. New regulations on the internet also led to the arrest of popular bloggers, including a prominent Chinese-American investor and a 16-year-old boy. Escalating violence in Tibet and Xinjiang contributed to a vicious cycle of repression and backlash in ethnic minority areas. Despite the crackdown and overall tightening of political space, NED partners in China continued to demonstrate their resilience and pushed to reduce restrictions on freedom of association and information and to improve human rights conditions for all of China’s ethnic groups.
In March 2013 a UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea was established to document widespread human rights abuses in the country. Repression increased further in 2013 as the country’s young leader Kim Jong-un consolidated his power. However, average North Koreans continued to demand outside information as they have become more aware of the differences between their own reality and the outside world. In 2013, the Endowment promoted the free flow of information in and out of North Korea, including programs that provide reliable documentation of human rights violations inside North Korea to the international community. NED also supported programs encouraging the increased involvement of the international community in human rights and democracy issues and building the capacity of North Korean defectors and citizens inside the country.
Pakistan’s general elections in May 2013 marked the first time in the country’s history that an elected civilian government completed its full term and transferred power to another elected government. Although Pakistan now has many of the legal and institutional foundations for a functioning democracy, effective implementation of reforms as well as good governance remain long term challenges. To maintain the momentum of democratic reforms and continue to promote active civic participation beyond elections, NED supported programs promoting democratic awareness within key institutions such as the media, educational system, police, and parliament.
Elsewhere in South Asia, NED continued to increase its support for civil society in Sri Lanka, where the Rajapakse government persisted in clamping down on civil liberties while making no progress towards addressing critical questions of accountability and reconciliation related to the country’s three decades of civil war. NED partners in Sri Lanka focused on addressing wartime accountability and reconciliation, encouraging greater civic participation and good governance on the local level, and strengthening the rule of law and independence of the judiciary.
In Southeast Asia, the Endowment’s Vietnam program focused on building the capacity of Vietnamese organizations and activists to defend human rights in the face of an increasing government crackdown on dissent. In the Philippines, NED continued to work with groups taking advantage of the window of opportunity under President Aquino’s reform-oriented administration to push for transparency and accountability and promote civil society’s role in deepening and sustaining democratic reforms.
NED also supported a number of regional and sub-regional programs in Asia, including the Solidarity Center’s programs addressing cross-cutting labor issues such as migrant worker rights, as well as an initiative to strengthen solidarity and cooperation on human rights and democracy in Asia by building a region-wide network of human rights and democracy activists.
In the following pages, learn more about democracy activists in Asia, including two of our 30 Under 30 honorees: Tenzin Dolkar and Shin Dong Hyuk, who represent the rising generation of democracy activists. This section includes a listing of NED grantees in 2013; to learn more about these grants, visit the NED website at www.NED.org/wherewework.