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Politics

Democratic conditions 'fall sharply' in Asia

Region regresses as minorities suffer in Indonesia and Myanmar, says think tank

An Indonesian Muslim holds up a poster during a rally calling for the arrest of Jakarta's then-incumbent governor Basuki Purnama.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Asia witnessed the biggest deterioration in its democratic conditions of any region in 2017, as minorities in countries including Indonesia and Myanmar suffered.

In the annual democracy index ranking, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit think tank, Asia and Australasia -- the Asia-Pacific region -- logged a score of 5.63 on a scale of 0 to 10, falling by 0.11 points from a year earlier. This was the largest fall among the seven regions observed by the think tank, in a year which saw democracy deteriorate in six out of the seven regions.

"Since we began producing the Democracy Index in 2006, Asia and Australasia has made more headway in advancing democracy than any other region, increasing its regional average score from 5.44 to a peak of 5.74 in 2015," noted the EIU. "But after stagnating in 2016 progress in advancing democracy in the region underwent a reversal in 2017. The regional average score fell sharply, reflecting a tumultuous year of negative change for many countries."

The Asia & Australasia region does have two democracy standouts in New Zealand and Australia, scoring 9.26 and 9.09 respectively, but it was the emerging Asian economies that pulled the region down in the regional ranking.

Among them was Indonesia, the worst-performing country out of all those observed in 2017, falling by 20 places in the global rankings from 48th to 68th position. The EIU said democracy in the country suffered after the mayoral polls in Jakarta last year, which saw the then-incumbent governor Basuki Purnama, hailing from the minority Chinese-Christian community, arrested for alleged blasphemy.

"His conviction, and effective exclusion from politics ... demonstrate how the country's draconian blasphemy laws are used not only to restrict freedom of expression but also to constrain political actors," the EIU said.

Minorities were also under attack in Myanmar and India, the EIU said. In Myanmar, the country's treatment of the Rohingya Muslim community drew widespread international condemnation in 2017, pushing the country seven spots down the global ranking to 120th.

In India, which dropped to 42nd from 32nd, "the strengthening of right-wing Hindu forces in an otherwise secular country led to a rise of vigilantism and violence against minority communities, particularly Muslims, as well as other dissenting voices," EIU said.

Cambodia was also in the spotlight for the wrong reason in 2017, following the forced dissolution of the main opposition party in November 2017, which "turned the country into a de facto one-party state." Cambodia came 124th in the overall ranking.

The posterchild of the one-party state, China, dropped three spots to 139th. "China's president, Xi Jinping, has presided over a media crackdown since he took power in 2012, including tough censorship of social media and the arrest of hundreds of dissidents," said EIU of the country, which ranked joint 154th in a separate media freedom ranking.

Unsurprisingly, North Korea ranked last out of all the 167 countries and territories surveyed in the democracy ranking, scoring 1.08.

A few countries which moved up the rankings in the region, such as Nepal, which rose from 102nd to 94th, and South Korea, from 24th to 20th.

"Nepal successfully held a series of local and provincial elections under the constitution that was ratified in 2015. In South Korea a popular movement eventually led to the impeachment of the then-president, Park Geun-hye, who was found guilty of embezzlement," the EIU said, explaining the reason for the improved ranking.

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