Prominent Japanese and Indonesian figures in the non-government sector have agreed on the importance of the roles the two countries and public opinion should play in advancing democratic values in Asia.
Asian countries are facing major challenges related to democracy, but there is a consensus among the countries involved that democracy must be promoted in the region, Hassan Wirajuda, a former Indonesian foreign minister, said at the first-day session of a two-day international symposium at a Tokyo hotel March 20.
To this end, Japan and Indonesia, and if necessary, including mature democracies such as South Korea, should assist emerging democracies in the region, he said. It is often said that the 21st century is a century for Asia, but a system of political cooperation remains to be established in the region, Hassan noted. Warning that there will be major confusion in the region if conflict erupts in such an unfavorable situation, the veteran Indonesian diplomat called on Asian countries to strive in earnest to build a regional cooperative system.
Yasushi Akashi, chairman of the International House of Japan, noted that Indonesia has helped to overcome conflicts in Ache and East Timor, and contributed to building a peace process in Cambodia while providing mature ideas to the parties involved. Indonesia should also display its wisdom for linking Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia to each other, said Akashi, a former undersecretary-general of the United Nations.
The two figures, joined by other opinion leaders from Japan and Indonesia, were speaking at a panel discussion that was the first event of two days of dialogue organized by The Genron NPO, a non-profit independent Japanese think tank.
The symposium was held under the theme "Rethinking peace and democracy in East Asia on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II." The two-day workshop was organized in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and sponsored by the Japan Foundation Asia Center. The subject of the first-day session was "How to advance democracy in Asia" with panelists asked to discuss the given two themes "Reconsidering Asia's two major democracies - Japan and Indonesia" and "The role of public debate and the civil sector for democratic government in Asia" at its two sub-sessions.
In his opening remarks, Hassan said that after Indonesia ended 32 years of military rule in 1998, it became aware of the importance of promoting democracy, respecting human rights, eliminating corruption and nepotism, and strengthening the autonomy of local governments.
Reconsidering peace and democracy
These values represented the "antitheses" of military regimes and contributed to resolving Indonesia's monetary crisis, which preceded the democratization, he said. "We are confident that our transition to democracy from military rule was so made," Hassan said. Challenges remain for Indonesia, the most populous Islamic country in the world, he said. Democracy cannot be established simply by holding elections, Hassan said. "We must show that democracy is actually functioning and contributing to people's lives," he said.
Representing the Japanese panelists, Akashi said that in order to achieve a true democracy, the political situation should be improved to better reflect people's views in politics and to this end, fully provide necessary information and analyses to the public. In this sense, the role of the media is extremely important, he said. Balanced activities by organizations like The Genron NPO will contribute to forming healthy public opinion and containing narrow-minded or exclusive nationalist sentiments in Japan, thereby ensuring peace and stability in Asia, Akashi said.
Democracy has still to become firmly rooted as a system in Indonesia, said I. Ketut Putra Erawan, executive director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy of Indonesia. A program for reform has not been fully explained to the people and communication between Indonesian people is not satisfactory, either, he said.
Indonesia has had a strong civic society since before the democratization of 1998, said Rahimah Abdulrahim, executive director of the Habibie Center, a leading think tank established by former Indonesian President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie. This is working as a feature that is unique to Indonesia, she said.
Phillips Vermonte, head of the Department of Politics and International Relations, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Indonesia should make more efforts for political and economic reform. In order to ensure that democracy will properly function, it is important to win people's trust, but instances of corruption continue, he said.
From the Japanese side, Yoshinori Katori, a former ambassador to Indonesia, remarked that Indonesia is a multiracial country that is home to 300 tribes and where 300 languages are spoken. Muslims account for 90 percent of the people, but there are also Christians and Buddhists, too, he said. In a society like this, importance is given to generosity, and this requires people to think about each other's position and understand each other's differences, according to Katori. In other words, a national integration that maintains diversities becomes important, he said.
Because Indonesia is a multiracial state, it has been striving to refine its political system in pursuit of a better democracy, said Koichi Kawamura, a research fellow at the Area Studies Center of the Institute of Developing Economies of the Japan External Trade Organization, or JETRO. Kawamura, who has worked as a researcher at Gadjah Mada University of Jakarta, said that Indonesia is the sole democracy in Southeast Asia but that Indonesia is ready to share democratic values with other Asian countries, rather than trying to educate neighboring countries as a leading democracy in the region. "This is the key of Indonesia's democracy," he said.
Since the economic gap is widening among Indonesian people as a result of economic development, no optimism is warranted about the course of Indonesian society, said Ken Miichi, an associate professor of Iwate Prefectural University. But urbanization is spreading in local cities, and as a result, the number of middle-income people is increasing in Indonesia, he said. This may be one reason why Indonesia remains united despite the fact that it is a multiracial state, said Miichi, who released a book about religion and politics in Indonesia in 2014.
A subsequent post-break discussion was devoted to exchanging views on the role of public debate and the civil sector for democratic government in Asia. At the start of the session, Genron NPO President Yasushi Kudo outlined the findings of a questionnaire carried out as a model for the dialogue, in which well-informed Japanese people were asked about problems related to democracy in Asia.
Public debate and civil sector
The polled people were slightly concerned about the course of democracy in Asian countries. Specifically, 42.6 percent of them replied they expect that democracy will develop while 10.1 percent replied that it will decline. Of the balance, 32.9 percent said they cannot say either way. Asked to identify what they believe is the most important standard for democracy, 34.5 percent of the polled referred to respect for the basic human rights of individuals. Political freedom was cited by 14.3 percent and freedom of expression, association and belief by 12.8 percent.
The polled were also asked to choose reform measures implemented by Indonesia since the democratization of 1998 and knowledgeable to them. As many as 50.8 percent of the polled said they don't have any knowledge of the measures listed in the question. In a question about the challenges facing democracies in Asia, 36.8 percent of the polled mentioned lack of people's confidence as corruption involving politicians and government bureaucrats continues. The second most frequently cited answer was the big gap between the rich and the poor, 33.7 percent, followed by lack of a full guarantee for the basic human rights of individuals, 23.3 percent, and the military's political intervention in some countries, 21.3 percent.
Of other factors, lack of power-monitoring by the media or citizens was mentioned by 17.1 percent of the polled, while another 17.1 percent of the polled cited a populist tendency in politics and 16.7 percent replied that the civic society remains immature.
Commenting on the findings of the questionnaire, Vermonte said that the gap between the rich and the poor must be narrowed as an important factor for advancing democratic rule.
In Indonesia, military leaders once tended to make light of political leaders with no links to the military, Vermonte said. As a result, relations between the military and politicians were bad, but at present, the relationship is good, he said. Unlike Thailand, which is again ruled by a military regime, non-military political leaders in Indonesia are in a better position to display their initiative in addressing political affairs, Vermonte said.
Abdulrahim said that women are beginning to speak up for campaigns to expose corrupt officials. "This is a new trend in Indonesian politics," she said.
Referring to the annual Freedom in the World report compiled by the Washington-based Freedom House, which assesses each country's degree of political freedom, Hassan noted that there are only 16 politically free countries among 56 states in the Asia-Pacific region. This reflects the fact that there were many regimes in Asia in the past that gave priority to efficiency rather than democratic values in order to push economic development.
Among these regimes were those led by Suharto of Indonesia, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Park Chung-hee of South Korea. Referring to the activities of the Bali Democracy Forum he heads, Hassan said some people doubt whether democracy is truly necessary, at a time when one-party dictatorial states like China are increasing their political presence in the world. But non-democratic countries such as China and Iran have dispatched their officials to the Bali Democracy Forum, he said.
Democratization of China
"Because they are also becoming aware that they will have to change, dialogue must be continued about democracy as a strategically important factor in the region," Hassan said.
In discussions about how far the freedom of expression, including activities by media organizations, must be guaranteed, Abdulrahim said that freedom in media reporting should not be restricted. In the meantime, the media will come to have a greater influence on democracy, she said. Therefore, the media must be aware of its responsibility for society, Abdulrahim added. People should also be ready to properly examine the quality of media reports and to this end, education is indispensable for people so that a mature democracy may be established, Abdulrahim said.
The panelists also discussed how to deal with China in advancing democracy as an important factor on the future agenda for the region.
Hassan said that although China has achieved wonderful economic development, it is having difficulty expanding its political space. China's possible failure to develop in a democratic and peaceful manner will have an extensive adverse influence on neighboring countries, he said.
China itself has no idea about what it must do for democratization, Hassan said. "We hope to share our experience of success (with the Chinese) so that we can help their efforts for democracy," he said. There can be a variety of means of development for democracy, Akashi said. Efforts for democratic development should be made while considering a complex situation peculiar to Asian countries from various aspects, rather than viewing the situation universally in light of one or two guidelines, just as the United States does, he said.