Indonesia and democracy promotion in ASEAN

The changes in ASEAN cannot be separated from the dynamic in their member countries. Indonesia’s political reform in 1998 contributed to a change in ASEAN, especially in establishing the political-security community.

Yuyun Wahyuningrum, Jakarta | Opinion | Mon, September 08 2014, 10:46 AM

The changes in ASEAN cannot be separated from the dynamic in their member countries. Indonesia’s political reform in 1998 contributed to a change in ASEAN, especially in establishing the political-security community. Indonesia’s consolidated democracy continues to strengthen as shown in the 2014 presidential election.

People’s participation in the election was the highest since 1998 and public trust in democratic institutions has been restored. Indonesia’s success in improving its democracy raises high expectations that the country will strengthen its leadership role in the building of the ASEAN Community 2015.

President-elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo faces two demands that he has to fulfill immediately. First is the demand from the voters to create a populist government to tackle Indonesia’s socioeconomic problems and to confront the country’s political elites within and outside his coalition.

Second is the demand from the international community, to take a leadership role in promoting democracy and improving human rights in Southeast Asia. As one of the initiators, Indonesia has inherited the responsibility of being the intellectual leader of ASEAN. Jokowi’s administration faces a number of challenges.

Southeast Asia is comprised of a diverse and complex mix of ethnicities, cultures, religions and beliefs, as well as different political and legal systems.

The differences among member states on the nature of democracy serve as a major constraint on the democracy building process in ASEAN. Between 2000 and 2014, Freedom House ranks five countries in ASEAN, namely: Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore as “free” or “partly free” countries in the region. From 2006 to 2013, Freedom House ranked Indonesia in the category of “free” but moved it back to “partly free” in 2014.

Joshua Kurlantzick in the May 2014 report Southeast Asia’s Regression From Democracy and Its Implications, argued that democracy in Southeast Asia was in retreat and indicated three factors that caused it: Most first-generation democracy leaders used their electoral victories to consolidate power against their rivals; the failure of governments to provide effective governance and the fact that communication technology has not helped in improving democracy but has been used by some authoritarian governments to conduct surveillance on citizens.

For the people in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, the democratic crisis has meant increasing crackdowns on journalists, human rights lawyers, opposition politicians, bloggers, activists and religious leaders. Political deterioration has also contributed to internal conflict in Southeast Asia.

The ASEAN Charter includes democracy as one of the group’s purposes along with human rights, good governance and rule of law, but ASEAN members still treat democracy only as a norm, rather than a concrete type of political system with distinct and fundamental characteristics.

At the moment, there is a lack of political will from member states to promote democracy under the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC). Further, there is no mechanism to enforce its compliance within ASEAN.

Even though ASEAN has various action plans to make it a people-oriented association, the body has no specific mechanism to ensure that the voices and concerns of the people are heard.

Democracy has a problematic relationship with security in the context of ASEAN, whereby its members consistently adhere to the non-interference principle. Imposing democracy on ASEAN member states may trigger interstate tensions that will adversely affect regional security.

Nevertheless, APSC gives a clue to the association to push the democracy agenda through the promotion of human rights and good governance as an alternative to the attempt to transform the political systems of member states.

Strengthening the current ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) could serve as a point of departure, among others, to promote democracy in the region.

But is AICHR the strategic entry point?

Democracy requires that those affected by any actions of commission or omission should be allowed to participate, and that those who have committed wrongdoings should be held accountable.

Five years after its inception, AICHR continues to have problems engaging civil society and helping the victims of human rights violations, despite the fact that one of the most important functions of human rights machinery is to hold human rights violators accountable at the national, regional and international levels.

AICHR has no mandate to conduct investigations, receive individual complaints, and inquire about the status of a country’s human rights situation.

The ongoing review of the AICHR’s terms of reference should result in amending the body’s current mandate. The AICHR should review country’s human rights regularly, where the check and balance on states’ compliance with their human rights obligations can be assessed; a mandate to conduct country visits; and the power to perform precautionary measures.

The review should also provide the opportunity for AICHR to develop effective, meaningful civil society engagement. Otherwise, AICHR will become a less legitimate human rights institution.

Democratic legitimacy requires public justification of the results to those who are affected by them. Justification demands participation, accountability and responsibility.

Indonesia has so much to offer to the region in terms of promoting democracy and human rights. However, it does not mean that the rest will follow Indonesia’s lead. It requires more efforts to lead by example and engagement to take democracy as both a means and an end to the ASEAN Community.

Indonesia should start institutionalizing the country’s experiences and memories of its democratization process in a regional democracy laboratory or learning center, where everyone, including young people, can learn from and generate debates on the country’s best and worse practices in democracy.



The writer is senior advisor on ASEAN and human rights at the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG), a coalition of NGOs working on human rights in Indonesia, based in Jakarta.