Asia’s democracies take a stand

South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia condemn the violence in Myanmar while Japan has begun to challenge China’s abuses.

South Korean students and Myanmar people living in South Korea flash the three-fingered gesture outside the Myanmar Embassy in Seoul March 24.

Just over 35 years ago, most countries in East Asia were not democratic. Then a wave of change hit in the late 1980s and 1990s. The Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, and Indonesia cast off authoritarian leaders. Myanmar had a partial revolution against military rule. Even in democratic Japan, a longtime ruling party fell from power.

Decades later, those transitions are paying off. In recent weeks, several Asian democracies have shed their reluctance to speak out on behalf of democracy and human rights in neighboring countries, marking a new level of political maturity and progress for the region.

The most vocal has been South Korea under President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer. He condemned the Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar and banned military exports to the country. In addition, the South Korean legislature called for an immediate suspension of the use of violence against innocent protesters.

Taiwan’s parliament also condemned the violence and called on the junta to restore democracy – despite significant Taiwanese investments in Myanmar. Meanwhile, Indonesian President Joko Widodo took a similar stance and called for an emergency meeting of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar.

Japan has fallen in line with these other democracies in criticizing Myanmar’s rulers. But its bolder move has been to stand up to Beijing on two issues: China’s rising military threats to Taiwan and, to a lesser degree, its mass incarceration of its Uyghur Muslim minority population in Xinjiang.

In March, Japan joined with the United States in an explicit statement about the importance of “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” The last time that Japan agreed with the U.S. in a statement on Taiwan was in 1969.

In a summit with President Joe Biden today, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide said he wanted to demonstrate the leadership of both Japan and the U.S. in “achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

One reason these Asian democracies feel emboldened is that China has stepped up its support of authoritarian regimes, wielding its economic clout in a bid to become the region’s dominant power. Another reason is that many of their own people want to set an example. Taiwan, for instance, relied on the democratic spirit of its citizens to quickly suppress the coronavirus – in sharp contrast to the abusive and anti-democratic methods in China.

Democracy in Asia still faces strong headwinds. The Philippines, for example, has slid backward from its 1986 “people power” revolution. But the undercurrents of the democratic wave decades ago are still strong. Nations that taste freedom want to help others savor it.

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