CJ Werleman on the rise of authoritarianism in Asia and why some on the left are aiding the advance of illiberal regimes, not fighting it.

Human rights and pro-democracy activists in Asia are in need of allies in the West like never before, but they’ve not only being abandoned by the United States, but also by prominent voices within the peace movement.

Democracy remains a fragile experiment, and nowhere are the political and civil rights of the individual and democratic institutions more under threat than the Asian continent, with one democratic nation state after another either being swept up in hyper-nationalistic fervor, succumbing to the allure of a strongman, or falling into line under one-party rule.

Whereas the respective ends of the Second World War in the 1940s, the anti-colonial struggle in the 1970s, and the Cold War in the 1990s paved the way for the near universality of liberal democracy throughout the region, the military and economic rise of China, however – which is taking place at the same time as the United States has shown declining support for democracy – is unraveling hard-earned democratic gains in Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong.

While nearly all of the these nation states fear the presence of an ever more powerful and emboldened China in their neighbourhood, just as many are mimicking the Chinese Communist Party’s return to a draconian yet hi-tech totalitarian rule, with a ‘War on Terror’, ‘War on Drugs’, and ‘War on Crime’ discursive propaganda working in cahoots with anti-immigrant sentiment to unravel democratic norms and human rights in the region.

It relates to their inability to see the international system comprising bad actors beyond the government of the United States.

In Myanmar, this has culminated with the ethnic cleansing of 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims, the imprisonment of journalists, and a re-emergence of the military junta as the face of the country’s quasi-democracy.

In the Philippines, it has resulted in the election as president of Rodrigo Duterte, who has subverted the country’s justice system by encouraging the extra-judicial murders of drug dealers, drug users, and even critics of his government – a terrifying political reality that also has also produced the killings of dozens of journalists, civil rights activists and lawyers.

In India, the recent re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose 2019 political campaign was established on the demonisation of religious minorities, has sparked a new wave of communal violence, particularly against Muslims and placed the country’s secular democratic character under immediate threat.

Then there’s Thailand, where the recent election was mired by accusations that the military rigged the result.

Meanwhile, Cambodia continues to suffer under the corrupt and ruthless Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held onto power since 1988 by killing political opponents and jailing critics.

The Blindness of the Left

Looming large in Asia’s shift away from democratic norms and its tilt towards authoritarianism, of course, is China, and the challenge it has thrown down to the Western democratic rules-based international system.

This challenge is felt most acutely by those who live in the way of China’s economic and expansionist ambitions – notably the upwards of three million Uyghur Muslims who are currently held as political prisoners in a network of concentration camps throughout the north-west region of the country, or what was once East Turkistan. Alongside the Uyghur Muslims are the millions of Hong Kong citizens who fear their civil and human rights will soon evaporate as the territory becomes increasingly acquiescent to Beijing’s demands.

Democracy remains a fragile experiment, and nowhere are the political and civil rights of the individual and democratic institutions more under threat than Asia.

Compounding the dramatic retreat of democracy and human rights in Asia are popular pundits who count themselves among the vanguard of the “anti-war” and “anti-imperialist” left in the UK and the US, those who have drunk a little too much of the Noam Chomsky Kool-Aid and thus interpret every global seismic political event or trend as some kind of US or Israel-led conspiracy.

In fact, the very same leftist figures who have become known for smearing anti-dictator Syrians and first responders as “terrorists” and “jihadists”, while at the same time disseminating Kremlin-sponsored conspiracies designed to provide diplomatic cover for Syrian and Russian government war crimes and genocide, are also leading a chant to paint the Chinese Communist Party as some kind of victim of CIA propaganda.

For instance, when protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest the island’s proposed extradition bill, which would allow China to get its hands on political targets it deems undesirable, conspiratorial leftists proclaimed the two million-strong crowd were fuelled – not by concerns of Beijing’s tightening grip on the self autonomous territory – but rather by a front for the US Government, namely the National Endowment for Democracy.


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Worse, certain segments among the self-proclaimed “anti-imperialist” and/or “anti-war” left are now going so far to even deny the very existence and purpose of China’s Muslim concentration camps – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Last week, Ben Norton, a blogger who contributes to Kremlin propaganda channel RT, and who has established a track record of denying genocide and war crimes on behalf of illiberal regimes, claimed that China isn’t separating Uyghur children from their parents and placing them into state-run orphanages, as claimed by the BBC and thousands of personal testimonies. Instead, Norton praised Beijing for “building schools for Uighur children.”

In 2018, Norton published an article on The Grayzone Project, a far-left blog with alleged ties to the Kremlin, in which he claimed that China’s Muslim concentration camps existed only in the imagination of “US funded outfits”.

It’s deliberate disinformation like this from the “anti-war” left that stymies global solidarity campaigns in their efforts to build and apply adequate pressure on anti-democratic regimes abroad, like that of China, and illiberal governments at home, like that of the Trump administration.

Last year, Syrian human rights activists explained to me how prominent voices among the “anti-war” left have helped the Assad regime escape accountability by propagating Kremlin-borne conspiracy theories.

Human rights and pro-democracy activists in Asia are in need of allies in the West like never before.

“This propaganda facilitates the gas attacks, hospital bombings, sectarian cleansing, and so on,” Robin Yassin-Kassab, co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, told me. “It also contributes to the general demonisation of Muslims and Arabs in our culture. Beyond hurting Syrians, Arabs and Muslims, it is also damaging our civic and political life in the West, but the main purpose of this propaganda – because it has been carefully planted and guided – is to distract attention from the crimes committed by Assad and the Iranian and Russian occupations against civilians in Syria, and to prevent solidarity with those victims.”

Ultimately, this strain of leftist politics is unable or unwilling to view the world with anything more sophisticated than a sophomoric understanding of international relations, specifically as it relates to their inability to see the international system comprising bad actors beyond the government of the United States.

It’s this blindness that is fast-tracking the decline of democracy and human rights everywhere.

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