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Politics

Suga and Modi call for unity in democracy to combat COVID-19

Indian PM proposes new Buddhist library to 'guide world against challenges'

Former Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at the conference in Tokyo. (Source photos by Karina Nooka) 

TOKYO -- Cooperation among democratic countries that share values of diversity and tolerance is required to combat economic and social problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Asian political leaders stressed at an international conference on Monday.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed establishing a library of traditional Buddhist literature in India by gathering digital copies of documents found in monasteries around the world to serve as a "platform for research and dialogue."

Speaking at the Shared Values and Democracy in Asia symposium, organized by Nikkei and co-organized by New Delhi-based think tank Vivekananda International Foundation, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga outlined the role Japan has been playing in Asia to promote democracy. He said this comes with a desire to "cherish and respect diversity and tolerance," based on the region's traditional beliefs.

By dispatching election observer missions and providing human resource development assistance, "Japan will continue to stand side by side with each country and work with them to further develop democracy in Asia," Suga said in his address at Nikkei Hall in Tokyo.

Modi said in a video message that the symposium, the sixth since it was launched in 2014, following a joint proposal by the leaders of Japan and India, is happening at a "critical moment of human history," and that actions today will "shape the discourse in the coming times." Calling for a change of paradigm on what we see as growth, he said, "[Global] growth patterns must be in harmony with our surroundings."

Modi wants to create the Buddhist library by collecting digital copies of documents from different countries, translating them and making them freely available for monks and scholars. The library will examine "how Buddha's message can guide our modern world against contemporary challenges," such as poverty, racism and climate change, he said.

India already has Nalanda University that was established in the eastern state of Bihar in 2014 -- reviving the world's oldest university through multilateral cooperation among Asian countries including China. It is a place for Indian and international students to study Buddhism, a religion that shares deep historical links with Hinduism in India.

Meanwhile, former Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena noted that the hurdles created by COVID-19 cannot be dealt with in isolation. "The economic issues created, especially by forcible encroachment of borders by COVID-19, have confirmed the fear of economic destabilization. ... We require the integrated cooperation of democratic countries," Sirisena said in an online keynote speech.

Citing U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, Sirisena said the pandemic has aggravated inequalities brought by globalization, as technological innovation is prompting labor retrenchment in developed countries and reducing their purchasing power. "As the new American president, we look to him and other developed nations in Asia to escape from globalization impacts and the stresses of COVID-19," he said.

Speaking at a panel focused on democracy in Asia, Ketty Chen, vice president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, said she is "positive and optimistic about Taiwan's democratic future." Although Taiwan is facing "intervention from [its] neighbor [China] every day, with more military intimidation than ever," democratic partners including Japan, India and the U.S. are seeing Taiwan's value in contributing to the international community, "especially to the alliance of democracy," she added.

The speeches by the three leaders were followed by presentations from scholars on how various religions work in harmony in Asia.

"There is no natural hierarchy of values," said Bilahari Kausikan, chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, and selecting a particular set of values "requires painful trade-offs with other values."

But identity politics, in which a particular identity is privileged over others, is growing in Southeast Asia and even in Singapore and Indonesia, where communities are organized horizontally without ethnic or religious hierarchy. To ensure freedom of religion, appropriate management in the political sphere is important, Kausikan added.

Kokan Fujita, former president of Koyasan University in Japan, who in the past invited the Dalai Lama to the university, said, "Compassion and tolerance to relieve and save others" are needed as the world suffers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Imtiyaz Yusuf, associate professor at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization in Malaysia, warned that democracy is facing setbacks in Southeast Asia including Thailand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where "judiciary has become no more independent and there is promotion of religion for nationalism."

In his speech, Suga described the Tokyo 2020 Olympics scheduled for next summer as "proof that humanity has defeated the virus," and the Games should be a venue "where everyone respects diversity and demonstrates their fullest potential."

Sarah Walker, a New Zealand Olympian and bicycle motocross racer, echoed the sentiments, saying Tokyo 2020 should be "an end of the tunnel during this global COVID-19 pandemic," while Japanese Paralympic Committee Chairman Junichi Kawai said he hoped the Paralympic Game will be "a fruit punch" that retains athletes' individuality and not "a glass of fruit juice" that erases individuality, which he said is important to keep society diverse.

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