A NATION’S JOURNEY from repression to democratic restoration, and on to democratic consolidation, is never a single, straight path nor a simple daang matuwid.
There are, in fact, multiple roads to democratic transition, multiple paths strewn with trials reversals or even a series of missteps.
In truth, democratic transition could also be likened to “a pot of food that has been boiling in the stove, you smell it, it could be good or bad, it is food that someone has already cooked, it could be burning at the bottom or even not yet quite cooked.”
So, what next? “First thing you do is lower the heat, check for the missing ingredients, balance the flavor, see the role of the media, civil society, and all other stakeholders” to help cook it well.
Journalists from various countries who spoke at the keynote session of the Journalism Asia conference that opened today, Feb. 15, 2013, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, agree to the last that democratic transition is never a neat, smooth process.
There are, in truth, “different pathways to democratize,” said one speaker. The process unfolds sometimes as “a sequence of events,” or “sometimes a one-way street,” or sometimes as a combination of “the right boxes.”
One key element must be present though, he said: Greater or more media freedom fosters greater or more democratic rule. A positive development, too, is the emergence of social media
that “tends to have a democratizing effect in restricted democracies.”
Another speaker noted that democratic transition in Southeast Asia has become difficult “because no moral power,” including for instance, “no adherence to universal principles of human rights” nor understanding of the framework of human rights and democracy.
After transition, “discrimination continues” and “new forms of oppression” emerge. And while the situation “is no longer black and white… big swamps of gray, a morass of gray” remains in society.
Despite democratic revival in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Burma, the speaker noted “bigger splits have been created along religious lines, ethnic lines, expressed not just by governments but also by public” in some nations.
Yet a third speaker saw a problem with the fact that “no countervailing institution exists to check power, only the power of public opinion mediated by the press” in the post-transition nations of Southeast Asia.
Nonetheless, because politicians exercise power and get elected “mainly with the support and blessings of the media,” the post-transition milieu “amplifies the power of media way beyond its real power in a democratic context.”
As is happening in the former Soviet Union, in most of Southeast Asia today a picture of “old mafias” holds sway, the speaker said. “Mafias” from the military, religious groups “brandishing the bible” or lawyers “brandishing the Constitution,” and even the media, endure.
The hapless result is that “democracy might bring about the restoration of the old elite” in tandem with “the new centers of power.”
But “the most dangerous part” about “the media as a mafia,” according to the speaker, is that it has “its own romantic appeal, its own independent source of legitimacy, a power (drawn from) the glow or the afterglow of the democratic restoration.”
With its “fresh mandate to change things” after the transition to democracy, the media must be “prepared to assume that power” or the results could be “very scary.”
Yet a fourth speaker observed that the most delicate part of democratic transition is the process of consolidation.
“It’s a make-or-break process with no warranties, no guarantees of good results,” the speaker said. “New problems, new conflicts, new players emerge.” The process is assuredly often “messy and bloody.”
The “Journalism in Asia 2013″ forum is being organized by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. Journalists, academics, and civil-society representatives from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Myanmar are participants.