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Meaningful Participation Is the Key to Democracy in Southeast Asia

Democracy's de facto status in the world as of 2018, according to Democracy Index by The Economist. Via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0,

Each year on 15 September, the International Day of Democracy is celebrated around the world. The UN General Assembly established this day through a resolution in 2007 to encourage governments to strengthen and consolidate democracy. To make democracy work, a government has to respect the right to active, substantive, and meaningful participation of its citizens.

The theme this year is “participation.”

Article 21 (3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

In a message, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres mentioned that participation is the building block of democracy:

“It is built on inclusion, equal treatment and participation, and it is a fundamental building block for peace, sustainable development and human rights”

This short animation created by Mat Blackwell compares and contrasts autocracy, monarchy, and democracy:

Women’s representation is vital in any democracy. In 2013, Indonesia made it mandatory for political parties to field at least 30% women in its list of parliamentary candidates. However, the reality is far from ideal. Women hold only 17.1% of the seats in the national parliament (House of Representatives or DPR) and the representation has increased to 22% within provincial and district parliaments.

This animation by Common Ground ID explores whether the 30% quota is even enough:

In many parts of the world, observers notice that democracy has been in decline in Southeast Asia. However, it has at least shown mixed results. This was highlighted by Deasy Simandjuntak at Heinrich Boll Stiftung.

The Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” 2018 report on Southeast Asian countries shows several countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Philippines listed as “partly free,” while Brunei, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam are “not free.”

Myanmar was the only country whose status was improved from “not free” to “partly free.”  This 2013 video animation by Filmmaker Aung Zaw Moe and his friends ask the Myanmar society whether democracy has arrived in the country (although the first election under the new constitution took place in 2010).

Free and independent media, free exercise of religion, uninterrupted communication, access to free and fare elections, political participation — these are some of the yardsticks of meaningful participation in a democracy. And in a world where populism is increasing while democratic space is shrinking, these values are all the more worth protecting.

About the Author

Rezwan Islam has long experience in citizen and social media. For over 15 years, he has been writing for local and international citizen media sites/blogs.