Carl Gershman, President
The National Endowment for Democracy
New Delhi, India
Welcoming Remarks at the Inaugural Conference of the Asian Center for Democratic Development, January 7, 2001
I’m delighted to be with you at the launching of the Asian Center for Democratic Governance. This is the second major initiative that the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) have undertaken together. The first was the founding assembly of the World Movement for Democracy, which met here in New Delhi almost two years ago. The World Movement just held its second assembly in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and is now well established with regional and functional networks of democracy practitioners operating all over the world. We look forward to the continued participation of Indian NGOs, business and political leaders, trade unionists, intellectuals, and human rights defenders in this important global movement.
We are now gathered to establish a center to strengthen democratic governance in Asia, which President Clinton announced during his state visit to India last March. Never has such an initiative been more timely or urgently needed. While coming over on the plane, I read a lead editorial in this week’s Economist entitled “Asia’s Teetering Trio.” It was subtitled “Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines face a testing in 2001.” And, indeed, they do. In each of these three important Asian countries, democracy has at best sunk shallow roots and is by no means secure. The year ahead will be difficult for all of them.
In Indonesia, long pent-up demands for decentralization have fueled a half-dozen separatist rebellions at a time when foreign and domestic investment have collapsed and the military has yet to disengage from national politics. In Thailand, the individual who has probably just been elected the Prime Minister could be exiled from national politics for five years for violating the country’s new anti-corruption law. And the Philippines is also in turmoil as the impeachment trial of President Estrada proceeds amidst bombings and growing economic disarray.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that so far these new democracies are weathering the stormy seas. In Thailand, let us remember, the impasse has come about because there is an anti-corruption law that is being enforced. At an earlier time in Thailand’s history, the military might already have deposed the government, as it has done 17 times in the past 70 years. But so far the army has remained in the barracks.
In the Philippines, the impeachment process is taking place under the constitution and is another example of an Asian movement against perceived corruption and bad government.
And in Indonesia, which is the youngest and most threatened of the new democracies in Asia, and also by far the largest, President Wahid is carrying out a brave fight to keep the military at bay and to give democracy a chance to succeed.
We know the obstacles to democracy in these countries and elsewhere in Asia. Democracy cannot become firmly rooted unless corruption is rooted out, and that will require mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability and a long struggle to make them effective. The many other challenges include establishing stable party systems and dealing with the inevitable problems associated with money in politics; continuing to reduce the role of the military in politics; achieving economic reform and levels of growth that can help lift people out of poverty; strengthening local government and other forms of decentralization; defending human rights where they continue to be violated; encouraging the growth of a vigorous and vigilant civil society; strengthening independent media; and broadening the participation of women and traditionally excluded minorities in all aspects of political, economic, and social life.
And the list could go on. We have a long agenda because the work of building and rooting democracy involves so much more than ensuring free and fair elections though that is critical and fundamental. And it will be a difficult agenda to carry out. It was not that long ago when the collapse of weak democracies, such as in Weimar Germany, brought about the rise of terrible dictatorships and destructive wars. Today we can be more hopeful, but never complacent. It is democracy that is moving forward, and dictatorship that is trying desperately to hold on by adjusting to the demands of modern life and the pressures of competing in the world economy. In an article on Asian democracy in today’s International Herald Tribune, an analyst from Thailand refers to the possibility of Vietnam becoming one of the new “dominoes of democracy,” thereby standing on its head the old Cold War theory that saw a communist takeover in Vietnam precipitating similar advances throughout Asia.
The great strength of democracy, even weak democracy, was noted by Amartya Sen in his keynote address to the founding assembly of the World Movement for Democracy. It gives people in need a voice and, by so doing, plays a protective role against so many different forms of political and economic abuse. This explains, according to Sen, why famines have never occurred in an independent and democratic country with a free press. In that regard, one can only note with sadness and a sense of urgency that the military dictatorship in Burma is not only doing nothing to avert a growing health crisis, but it even refuses to acknowledge an AIDS epidemic which is now the worst in Asia.
And so there is a great need for this new Asian Center for Democratic Governance, which will help new democracies develop ways to make democracy work for people at the grassroots. It can even look forward to a time when countries that are now autocratic will join the ranks of the new democracies and participate in the historic work of democratic consolidation.
The role of India in this process cannot be over-estimated. It is the world’s largest democracy. It has grappled with all the problems that confront the new democracies from poverty and economic reform to the immensely difficult issues of pluralism and minority rights; from conducting the most complex elections in the world to bringing democracy to the local level through the panchayat system. It has managed to do this decade after decade in a regional and international environment that has never been without tensions and security concerns.
As democracy goes through the difficult pains of birth and growth in so many different parts of Asia, the readiness of India to reach out and cooperate with emerging democracies becomes increasingly important for the future of the whole region and the world. It is in that spirit that I welcome the launching of this Asian Center for Democratic Governance, and I look forward to its development into an influential new instrument for strengthening our common democratic values.