The Tales of Dissident Democrats in Asia… Themes and Lessons

10 Aug

Given that few existing literature exists on the compilation of stories on dissident democratic leaders, this newly published book, Dissident Democrats – The Challenge of Democratic Leadership in Asia, which focuses on Asia, is certainly welcomed, if not for its analysis, at least for relating the often untold stories.

While it includes stories of the more well-known, such as Aung San Suu Kyi who won a Nobel peace prize for her struggle against the Burmese military junta, they often go beyond the surface of the struggles of the leadership.

The story of Lee Kuan Yew for example, which is the first leader to be profiled, shows how a purported ‘democrat’ turned authoritarian technocrat upon gaining power. As Stephen McCarthy asserts, ‘Lee’s pragmatic political oratory skills also served him well. His legitimization over the years required not only the occasional staging of an unfair electoral contest, but the development and use of political rhetoric – of survival, Asian values, and meritocracy – in order to persuade his citizens of the righteousness of his visions and of their apolitical role in society.’

Anwar’s still continuing struggle as a dissident democrat, has been divided into three phases – from being a student and graduate activist to being in government and currently, an Opposition leader. The writer describes him as ‘dancing all the while among cooptation, compromise and confrontation’.

Sam Rainsy of the Sam Rainsy Party in Cambodia is ‘a controversial figure who is seen by some as racist and autocratic while viewed by many as a true democrat’ . This follows similar allegations against Kim Dae Jung, who withstood persecution from the South Korean dictators, Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan, and who was later criticised as being ‘a ’emperor-like President’ for his concentration of power, his government’s excessive intervention in corporate restructuring. the launch of the Sunshine policy without support, disregard for the National Assembly…’

As this book concedes, the motivations of the dissident democratic leaders are often difficult to understand. Yet, it argues that there are 5 common themes running through these leaders – the dangers associated with dissidence leadership, the problem of democratic means and ends, the temptations of success, the importance of the international context and the surprising resilence of democracy.

Short of going through all these, which would be better left for readers to find out for themselves, it is perhaps the stark choices that the dissident democrat leader has to make that is most confronting – whether to adopt more democratic or non-democratic means for ‘necessity’ in difficult situations. This is perhaps the core of dissident democratic leadership.

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