Book Review: Pacific Asia in Quest for Democracy

27 Sep

Roland Rich, (2007) Pacific Asia in Quest for Democracy, Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, pp.330.

Reviewed by Dr James Gomez

Although there is a positive energy towards democratization in Asia, China with it single party capitalism remains the core hindrance because it creates a lack of census over political freedoms in the region. Only when China democratizes, will it ease up the processes in Asia for realizing a common vision of democracy. This is the conclusion of Pacific Asia in Quest for Democracy which examines the state of democracy in Asia.

The book analyzes five countries: Indonesia, Philippines South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan which the author argues as being part of Pacific Asia and anchored by a dominant Sinic culture. These countries form a certain critical mass, that in spite of the China “problem”, the author believes are on the path towards democratization.

Written by Roland Rich, a former Australian diplomat in Burma, Philippines and Laos and the first executive director from 1998-2005 of the Centre for Democratic Institutions (CDI), the book combines a mixture of academic and personal narratives. It takes the reader through these five key countries in language set in fairly easy propose over ten chapters and spanning 330 pages.

The value of the book lies not in the “academic” analysis but rather the glimpses it provides into the world of democracy promotion in Asia. To date there is very little published work of democracy promotion agencies in Asia hence, this book is useful, cursory as it is, in providing an insight into the work of Australia’s government funded democracy promotion body.

CDI was established by the Australian government in 1998 to support democracy building efforts in the Asia-Pacific with a focus on programmes for parliamentarians and political parties. Government-funded via the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), CDI is housed at the Australian National University and has been in operation for the last ten years. The programmes of CDI are targeted at the Asia-Pacific with a strong focus on the Pacific Islands and Australia’s foreign policy priorities of East Timor and Indonesia in Southeast Asia.

In this book, Roland Rich, the former CDI executive director, uses a scattering of CDI activities across the book to illuminate his arguments on the prospects for democracy in Asia. The book therefore offers a unique insight into the work of CDI and how it was received on the ground through the examples of CDI programmes from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Given that the focus of CDI’s work has been on parliamentarians and political parties, two chapters in the book, “Anchoring Political Parties” and “Assessing Politicians” are especially worth reading. They give a nuanced and special insight to character of politicians and political parties in the five countries under review.

These chapters also draw on previous works on political parties undertaken for instance by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a German political foundation, in the region. Hence, pointing out that works written by those who have had field experience working in democracy promotion agencies in Asia can contribute to the theoretical and political debate. Political party building as part of democracy assistance has been one of the earliest form of democracy promotion activities undertaken in the region.

It is useful to note, that in 2005, the Roland Rich spent time at the American democracy promotion organization, National Endowment for Democracy (NED), as Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow where he researched and wrote the first draft of this book. He joined United Nations Democracy Fund as its Executive Director in 2007. Another book from him based on the international aspects of democracy promotion might be an useful contribution to the debate on democracy promotion in Asia.

In the context of democracy promotion activities in the region, the author notes, that the focus on the international community on Asian civil society assistance began in the 1980s and gained momentum after the financial crisis in 1997. Since then the donor community has began to include this sector as part of its overseas development assistance programmes (ODA). Since civil society in Asia have evolved and moved on from developmental issues to issues related to democratic politics, democracy assistance has increasingly become part of international ODA.

Pacific Asia in Quest for Democracy points to the need to have more studies undertaken on the work of democracy promotion organizations in Asia. Although scholars often study and analyze the state of democracy in Asia, there are hardly any studies on the work of agencies that actually undertake democracy building activities in the region. The discussion of CDI in this book is useful but is only cursory hence suggesting a need to expand and diversify such studies.

Overall, the book is a good read, and offers an in sight into democratization and democracy promotion in Asia. But it also points out that efforts at democracy-building in the region need to also include China.

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