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Thursday, December 28, 2006

US told to consider local sensitivity in democracy blitz in Asia

A congressional report based on a recent mission to Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, said the United States should take into account local sensitivities in its bid to promote democracy and good governance in Asia.(AFP/Illustration)

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States should take into account local sensitivities in its bid to promote democracy and good governance in Asia, says a congressional report based on a recent mission to the region.

The mission by the Senate foreign relations committee was aimed at examining the state of democracy in the region, with particular emphasis on programs supported with US government funding via nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

It covered Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and Sri Lanka and was part of a broad study that also included Africa, Central Europe and Latin America.

The report also wanted US-funded democracy promotion efforts in Asia to focus on building democratic institutions and "avoid the occasional perception of targeting or promoting political personalities."

It said "US government officials should recognize that effective promotion of democracy and good governance in Asia requires acknowledgement of cultural and national sensitivities.

"Definitions of democracy may vary," it said.

The study was conducted amid concerns that governments across the world had increasingly tightened controls on foreign NGOs to restrict their ability to work independently.

In Thailand, for example, the study found that the military junta which overthrew the democratically elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra in September allowed US NGOs to "operate freely and without intimidation or harassment."

Under the Thaksin administration, some US NGO phones were tapped and "under constant surveillance by Thai police authorities," one US NGO representative told US Senate staff conducting the survey.

The report cautioned that the "full limits of freedom in operation may not be fully actualized until martial law is lifted" in Thailand.

It urged US NGOs to work with pro-democracy leaders across party lines to assess how democratic institutions might be strengthened in Thailand to ensure stronger checks and balances within the government and political system.

In Indonesia, the mission found US NGOs facing few or no obstacles with their work. Often they operated with full support of the government, it said.

But one US official noted in the report that when it involved "sensitive" issues, such as human rights or special autonomy for the Indonesian regions of Aceh or Papua, the government "always seem to have suspicions."

Other US officials reported that the Indonesian government "has clearly indicated particular areas which it considers to be 'out of bounds,' for attention by international NGOs."

The report noted that it was often more effective for the US government to work "indirectly" in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim democracy.

As one NGO official stated, "unfortunately in the current environment, direct US assistance is sometimes viewed through a lens of concern related to a range of international affairs issues of immense concern to Indonesians."

Survey responses in Cambodia were mixed as to whether the government allowed NGOs to participate freely and whether they faced bureaucratic obstacles that deliberately prevent them from functioning.

The report said Cambodian government officials had been discussing the possibility of legislation to regulate NGOs.

"While NGOs do not object to registering with the government, the possibility of a law has raised concerns," it said.

The majority of survey respondents said corruption in Cambodia was not taken seriously as an issue in government, and that citizens were afraid to report corrupt businessmen, government officials and politicians.

In Sri Lanka, the report said, NGOs surveyed were not in agreement that the government provided ample space in which they can operate within the country.

In addition, there was no shared consensus that "watchdog organizations fear being coerced politically, economically or physically."

But there was agreement that the government does not take corruption seriously as an issue, the report said.

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