Many Asian democracies have fallen prey to abuses of power and privilege

January 12, 2014 9:35 am

Fears for Bangladeshi democracy rumble across region

By Victor Mallet

Many Asian democracies have fallen prey to abuses of power and privilege

Democracy in Bangladesh might not be as dead as Khaleda Zia, the country’s opposition leader, would have the world believe, but the pseudo-election just staged there certainly suggests it is gravely ill.Bangladesh is not alone in south and southeast Asia. From Sri Lanka to Cambodia by way of Thailand, parliamentary democracies have fallen prey to the diseases of authoritarianism, violence and strident populism.

Ms Zia, leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party, told the Financial Times that Bangladeshi democracy was “dead” after prime minister Sheikh Hasina, her longstanding political rival and head of the Awami League, refused demands for a neutral caretaker government to ensure a fair election.

In the face of a BNP boycott, Ms Hasina won control of parliament by default, in a low-turnout election marred by petrol bombings and shootings that satisfied neither the 150m inhabitants of Bangladesh nor the foreign governments that want to restore stability to one of the world’s biggest Muslim nations.

Ms Zia, a former prime minister, was hardly a beacon of tolerance when she was in power herself, and in opposition her party has condoned the enforcement by street thugs of months of strikes and protest stoppages. But one can understand her frustration at the arrest and persecution of thousands of her supporters before the poll. Ms Hasina, she said, was in power illegally and moving towards a one-party state.

In nominally democratic Sri Lanka, those who won the civil war against the separatist Tamil Tigers nearly five years ago have been vengeful rather than magnanimous in victory and have consolidated their grip on the island.

Hun Sen, the former Khmer rouge commander who became prime minister of Cambodia, has never tolerated effective opposition to his almost uninterrupted three decades in power. He recently crushed a strike by 350,000 garment workers demanding higher pay and cracked down on protesters calling for a rerun of an election they say was rigged by his ruling party.

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Neighbouring Thailand has been racked by years of intermittent confrontation on the streets. The country is torn between rural voters who support the populist handouts of the Shinawatra family (Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister, is in exile and his sister Yingluck is now in power) and an educated urban elite unwilling to accept that majority rule is one of the consequences of democracy.

A common feature of these problems is the impotence of foreign governments, particularly the western democratic ones that feel it their duty to promote freedom, in the face of brutality and intransigence. Sri Lanka was not chastened by Canada’s refusal to send its prime minister to the Commonwealth summit in Colombo.

It must be tempting for Asia’s ageing authoritarian ideologues to revive the discredited arguments of the 1990s and declare again that Asians are culturally ill-suited to “western” representative democracy.

Luckily there are counter-arguments. For a start, there are several south Asian countries where democracy has grown stronger. In India, the largest democracy of all, an untried party devoted to the “common man” has been unexpectedly elected to run the capital Delhi, threatening the habitual two-party domination of national politics by Congress on the left and the Bharatiya Janata party on the right.

Pakistan remains a fragile democracy, but last year it celebrated the first transfer of power from one elected government to its successor. Successful elections were also held in Nepal and Bhutan.

A notable feature of failing democracies and ideologically confused parties is their adherence to a dynastic form of politics in which institutions, including the justice system, are weak but family ties are all-important. That applies to India’s Congress party, as well as to Sri Lanka and Thailand – and, above all, to poor Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, the leaders of the two main parties owe their positions to the martyrdom of powerful family members (Ms Hasina’s father and Ms Zia’s husband were both assassinated), and each has groomed a son (Ms Hasina’s is based in the US and Ms Zia’s in London) to continue family involvement in politics for the next generation.

The problem of Bangladesh is not that it has imported a democratic system from abroad but that the country’s politicians have seen it merely as a way of seizing control and making money.

In their addiction to power and privilege, Asian politicians such as Ms Hasina and Ms Zia have kept neither to the letter nor the spirit of democracy: if it is indeed dying, they have only themselves to blame.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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