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Asia mostly backsliding on democratic values

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Special To The Japan Times

In Japan, lawyers are fortunately not arrested by the state for doing their job, as they are in China. Nor are academics faced with indictment for challenging mainstream history narratives, as in South Korea.

We tend to expect the worst when it comes to China, but in democratic South Korea it is troubling to learn that professor Park Yu-ha is being subjected to a witch-hunt over her recent book, which challenges the official story of the “comfort women.” Whether she is right or not is irrelevant; in a functioning democracy scholars should have the political space needed to voice their opinions even if their ideas are unpopular.

Combined with President Park Geun-hye’s recent initiative to reassert a state monopoly on high school textbooks by 2017, and the arrest of a Japanese journalist for what amounted to shoddy journalism — thereby transforming him into an undeserving icon for press freedom — clearly the South Korean government is working overtime to tarnish that nation’s hard-won image for robust democracy. The good news is that large-scale demonstrations against the president’s gambit to white-wash history show that citizens zealously guard these rights and are not going to tolerate any conservative backsliding on South Korea’s praetorian history.

Park must envy Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He has promoted patriotic education and imposed new guidelines that give the state inordinate control over what is written in Japan’s textbooks; when it comes to touchy subjects like territorial disputes or comfort women, they must conform with government views. And Abe has accomplished this without sparking mass protests about the history lobotomy he is administering. Perhaps this is because Abe’s Japan is a target-rich environment for progressive activists as he propels reactionary agendas across the board ranging from welfare for the wealthy — aka “Abenomics” — to nuclear restarts, collective self-defense, shoving a new U.S. military base at Henoko down the throats of Okinawans, arms exports, moral education, faux “womenomics,” visits to Yasukuni Shrine and so on. With so many targets, it’s hard to focus public disaffection.

Abe’s signature initiatives and grandstanding gestures may not be popular, but a weak and fragmented opposition gives him a free hand. The mass protests this past summer, in which demonstrators rallied in defense of the Constitution and against his security legislation, followed protests against his 2013 state secrets legislation, a remarkable rollback of what limited transparency has ensued since a national information disclosure law was passed in 2001.

The government seems paranoid over international scrutiny of this secrecy legislation, as the planned December visit of David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur charged with examining Japan’s record on transparency and accountability, has been postponed indefinitely. No doubt the officials charged with designating state secrets are so busy making sure that none of the dirty linen sees the light of day for 60 years — yes, that is the inscrutably lengthy period for which government documents can be withheld from public scrutiny — that making time to welcome an unwelcome visitor is a low priority.

So next month, when Abe visits Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India, he can offer moral support for New Delhi’s recent stonewalling of visits by U.S. State Department officials regarding human trafficking and LGBT rights. Given that Modi’s star is fading rapidly in India, underscored by a monumental setback at the state polls earlier this month in Bihar, where he had campaigned extensively, he could use a bit of Abe-teflon. Increasingly Modi has fallen back on the dark agenda of Hindutva (Hindu chauvinism) to offset the growing disenchantment with his mounting failures on the promises of national rejuvenation encapsulated in the “India Shining” propaganda. As with Abe’s historical revisionism, support for the Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi) and Yasukuni visits, Modi finds the temptations of the primordial are hard to resist and is also dumbing down India’s textbooks. Abe will try to seal the deal on exporting Japanese nuclear technology to India and Shin Maywa’s amphibious U-2 planes, which can track Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. He will also try to get New Delhi to buy Japanese high-speed rail technology.

China’s recent snatching of the Indonesian high-speed rail contract came as an unpleasant surprise given close bilateral ties between Indonesia and Japan since World War II and lingering animosity toward Beijing in Jakarta for alleged (and unsubstantiated) support for a so-called communist coup in 1965. In the aftermath, the military mounted a real coup under former President Suharto (1967-98), who, with the aid of Islamic youth groups and paramilitary organizations and gangs, unleashed a wave of terror that killed up to 1 million Indonesians.

This slaughter remains controversial in Indonesia, where President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has not carried through on his pledges for a full reckoning. This might be somewhat easier now, after the U.S. State Department in September declassified materials related to Washington’s involvement in fingering targets for the death squads. But Jokowi is politically weak and has also been unable to follow through on promises to open the troubled province of Papua to journalistic scrutiny because security forces there want to keep their repressive operations under wraps. And his “boss,” Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, is now trying to kill the anti-corruption commission in one of the most corrupt nations in the world.

At a November conference in Berlin on Sino-Japanese rivalry, discussion of Abe’s recent tour through central Asia singled out his visits to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where Abe disappointed human rights activists by shifting toward a more pragmatic stance similar to China’s. Unlike his predecessors, Abe came up short by ignoring widespread concerns about political repression. Given that China’s energy deals overshadow Japan’s by far, Abe had little to lose and much to gain by standing tall on democratic values and human rights. Alas, Abe decided that “success” depended on acting more like Beijing and cozying up to despots.

Myanmar is one of the bright spots for democracy in Asia, after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a resounding landslide victory in the November election. It now faces the impossible task of meeting unreasonably high expectations. She doesn’t have a magic wand, however, and has to deal with ethnic problems that have proven intractable for the entire post-WWII independence period. She also needs to cope with militant Buddhist monks eager to whip up anti-Muslim violence.

Yet, the people voted out the military-backed junta for the second time in 25 years, and this time the generals indicate they will respect the outcome, a belated reward for citizens’ perseverance under a despotic regime. There is, however, an urgent need for donors to open the spigots of aid and the flow of technical assistance required to help them climb out of the very deep hole dug by an inept kleptocracy that has misruled for way too long.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.