Democracy across Asia comes under attack from repressive regimes

Voices advocating freedom and civil rights are being targeted across Asia

These are sour times for democracy in Asia. Photographs showed Gen Tanasak Patimapragorn, supreme commander of Thailand's armed forces, hugging Burma's army chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing during a visit to Bangkok earlier this month.

Thailand's military junta, which ousted the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May, has banned criticism by the media and arrested pro-democracy protesters for seditious acts such as reading George Orwell's 1984.

Thailand’s military justified its intervention by the need to restore stability after months of unrest. Coup leader Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha says there will no elections until late next year at the earliest. The Thai junta has favourably compared its seizure of power to the brutal crackdown by Burma’s generals in 1988 on a pro-democracy movement, when at least 3,000 people were killed.

Burma’s junta stepped aside in 2011 after nearly five decades of repressive rule and has carried out limited reforms, but there have still been no elections.


Parliamentary boycott

Meanwhile, in


, prime minister

Hun Sen

, who is dealing with a parliamentary boycott by the opposition


National Rescue Party, has spoken of his admiration for the Thai junta.

In Hong Kong, hundreds of thousands marched in the recent pro-democracy demonstrations, angering Beijing and underlining Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy,

Since then, police have come down hard on the leaders of the organisers, Occupy Central.

Hong Kong was not a democracy when it was a crown colony, and it has always taken a tough line on public displays of political dissent, both as a colony and now as a special administrative region of China. At the same time, it has press freedom and other liberties not available across the border.

There was always room for dissent, which is why one picture to emerge out of the recent expressions of Hong Kong’s autonomy came as a particular shock.

One of the continent's most vocal democrats, Leung Kwok-hung, a left-winger long seen as a voice for freedom, known affectionately in the territory as "Long Hair", no longer has long flowing locks.

A member of Hong Kong's Legislative Council, Long Hair has been jailed several times for shouting from the gallery and burning the Chinese flag.

He supports universal suffrage, social welfare for Hong Kong’s growing legions of disenfranchised poor.

But the Basic Law which formed the legal basis for the reversion to Chinese rule in 1997 contains a road map towards universal suffrage in 2017 and democrats have held out hopes that this will prevail.

A shocking photograph in the Apple Daily showed Long Hair, in handcuffs with a short back and sides.

At the same time, Beijing has issued a White Paper, saying Hong Kong's destiny lay with the Chinese Communist Party, and will take place on Beijing's terms.

In China, a succession of trade missions come traipsing through and are greeted by an increasingly confident and sophisticated Communist Party leadership. The cities they pass through are polluted and choking with traffic, but they are also wealthy emblems of China’s remarkable economic rise.

And yet, as the recent crackdown on dissent ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of democracy demonstrators showed, this impressive economic advance has taken place without any political reform.


The prominent Chinese-Australian artist

Guo Jian

was one of the victims of the crackdown – he was arrested for making a model of Tiananmen Square and covering it with mincemeat.

Last month, Liu Ping, a rights campaigner who wanted officials to disclose their assets as a step against corruption, was sentenced to 6½ years in prison. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany and has experienced first-hand the denial of freedom of expression and other human rights, is one of the very few EU leaders who still seems to bother to engage China on rights issues. She offered to help "develop China's society", to introduce democratic reform.

Her offer may have been acknowledged but did not provoke any meaningful response.

I remember accompanying Long Hair on a political demonstration outside what used to be the Governor’s Residence, shortly before the Hong Kong handover in 1997, when he burned a Chinese flag, and the flag, made of some kind of plastic, shrank into a black gooey ball, rather than burn dramatically. Long Hair shook his locks, grinned, and kept on protesting.