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Ensure Human Rights, People’s Participation and Economic Justice in Democratization

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(Denpasar/Bangkok, 8 December 2011) Democracy in Asia will remain hollow if human rights, people’s participation and economic justice are not ensured in the process, warned a group of democracy and human rights advocates in the region who gathered in Bali for a civil society conference on democracy prior to the opening of the Bali Democracy Forum (BDF) IV on December 8-9.

About 40 delegates from 16 countries in Asia attended the regional meeting on “Democratization and People’s Participation in Asia, jointly organised by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and Imparsial-The Indonesian Human Rights Monitor.

The regional meeting urged Asian governments attending the BDF IV to review and stop legislating repressive laws that curtail civil liberties of the peoples if they truly aspire to become a democracy, the criteria for any country in Asia to join the annual forum.

“A vibrant civil society is key to a functioning democracy and an enabling environment for civil society must be created and preserved. Instead of responding to democratic voices, as highlighted in the theme of the BDF this year, however, we are alarmed that the exact opposite is taking place in the region,” said Yap Swee Seng, the Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA.

Yap highlighted a few examples to illustrate this worrying trend. Cambodia is currently making a highly restrictive law to control non-governmental organizations (NGO), Malaysia had just passed in its Lower House a bill that bans street rallies and imposes hefty fine of more than US$6,000 for participating in illegal public assembly, Sri Lanka annulled the emergency laws after defeating the Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) but incorporated emergency measures in law for peaceful times while NGOs critical to the Bangladeshi government continued to face extreme difficulties in receiving foreign funding for their work.

“Democratization should be considered failed if it cannot ensure economic justice,” said Maris Dela Cruz of the Institute for Popular Democracy of the Philippines/Network for Transformative Social Protection. She said the enlarging of the gap between the rich and the poor globally, the financial crisis that is taking place in Greece, Italy and several other European countries and the austerity measures that cut social services such as education, healthcare underscore the fundamental problem of neo-liberal economic policies that embolden big corporations while undermining the role of elected governments to protect its citizen. “A new economic paradigm and an alternative development model is warranted. Democratization in Asian countries must make this an integral part of its processes.”

The regional meeting also deliberated the impacts of corruption on democratization. “Access to information law and an independent anti-corruption agency are vital in fighting corruption. Unfortunately, many Asian countries still do not have a law on freedom of information in place or an independent anti-corruption agency that are able to act against powerful politicians. We call on all Asian countries to legislate anti-corruption and access to information laws to fight corruption,” said Saly from Indonesia Corruption Watch.

The civil society organizations called on the BDF to recognise the role of civil society in building democracy and engage civil society organizations and people movements in its next forum. “To begin with, the BDF should make its outcome documents and decisions publicly accessible in a website. The Institute of Peace and Democracy, as the implementing body of the decisions of the BDF, should promote dialogue and engagement among government officials, civil society organizations, academia and other stakeholders in its activities.”

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