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Small triumphs for Asian democracy in 2011

By Judith Evans

HONG KONG, December 11, 2011 (AFP) -- As revolution inflamed the Middle East in 2011, people power won its own small triumphs in Asia, with Myanmar startling observers by taking steps towards openness after decades of isolation.

In Southeast Asia, a surge in online activism galvanised citizens to make demands of their governments, while China and other authoritarian regimes watched their backs for any signs of Arab Spring-style revolts.

"There's a trend of people standing up to power," said Bridget Welsh, a political analyst from Singapore Management University. "It's not about opposition parties but about people's empowerment."

Ernest Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies labelled 2011 "the year of the voter in the region", writing in a report that "governments... are scrambling to retain power by pursuing reform".

These are not the seismic shifts of the Middle East, but analysts say smaller democratic gains are still worthy of note in countries where formidable power structures have held sway for decades.

Among them is Singapore, long a model for states looking to mix wealth with muscular rule, where the ruling party vowed to undergo "soul-searching" after its share of the vote plunged to a record low of 60 percent in watershed polls.

The results were the worst in the party's 52 years of government as, despite odds stacked in its favour, voters' mood for change found an outlet on the web which bloomed with satire, polemic and unfettered campaigning.

In Malaysia, likewise ruled by a single party since independence, discontent which erupted in 2008 elections has seen unprecedented street rallies including one in July in which protesters faced mass arrests and tear gas.

A public outcry over the heavy-handed tactics, and the prospect of fresh polls expected for next year, pushed Prime Minister Najib Razak into electoral reforms including several demanded by the rally's leaders.

Najib has also announced plans to replace colonial-era laws on security, free speech and assembly and improve civil liberties, as he attempts to shore up support in the face of an energised opposition.

The year's most astonishing changes, however, came in Myanmar, where on December 2 the world saw US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embrace Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside home where the democracy icon spent years under house arrest.

Elections a year earlier in the army-dominated state were met with scepticism, but the new government proceeded to free some political prisoners, hold talks with the opposition and pass a law allowing protests.

Optimism is growing that the glimmers of reform will blossom into real change.

"The small concessions that we've seen are all part of a larger movement that shows that major reforms are underway" in Myanmar, said Jim Della-Giacoma, project director for Southeast Asia at the International Crisis Group.

Undemocratic governments -- most notably that of regional superpower China -- have meanwhile appeared twitchy.

In February, China blocked online search terms relating to Egypt's burgeoning revolt, even barring the word "jasmine" after a small number of local activists called for street action to start a "Jasmine Revolution".

Those protests never materialised, but apparently rattled by events in the Middle East and the growing subversive power of the Internet, Beijing launched its harshest crackdown on dissidents in years.

North Korea, whose isolated people face some of the world's worst rights conditions, forbade its citizens working in Libya from returning home, South Korean reports said, apparently fearing they would spread word of its uprising.

But analysts note that unlike those of the Middle East, Myanmar's budding reforms were not prompted by mass protests but appear to have come from the top.

The generals' change of heart has variously been put down to fear of persecution by their successors, a desire to pull the nation out of poverty, or an awareness that the country is too dependent on its biggest investor, China.

Hu Xingdou, professor of economics and China policy issues at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said that China itself could not escape the democratic wave.

"The whole world is getting more and more democratic -- there are less and less dictatorships," he told AFP.

The succession system in China's Communist Party, with scheduled retirement for leaders, had avoided public resentment of lifelong dictators, he said, but "the tide of democracy is huge... (eventually) China will have to follow this trend."

In the region's young democracies, progress remains patchy; the Philippine leader Benigno Aquino is seen to have made incremental progress with an anti-corruption drive, while in Indonesia, the post-Suharto "reformasi" movement continues to take root.

Welsh said she was "optimistic" about "significant examples of opening up in different regimes".

"When the real authoritarian regimes -- Myanmar, the failure, and Singapore, the so-called success story -- are opening up, you can tell that something is happening," she said.

"If progress is happening in the dark corners of democracy, you can guarantee it is happening in the corners where there is light."


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