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Obama, Asia, and Democracy

by Joshua Kurlantzick
November 5, 2014

obama-najib U.S. President Barack Obama and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak speak at the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Center in Cyberjaya in this file photo from April 27, 2014 (Larry Downing/Courtesy: Reuters).


It’s nice, in a way, to see issues one has worked on appear in major, globally important publications. This past week, just before President Obama’s trip to Asia, the Banyan column in The Economist, a column that focuses on Asia, detailed the Obama administration’s general disinterest in issues related to democracy and human rights in Asia. Banyan notes that President Obama has kept quiet as protests for suffrage have raged in Hong Kong. Banyan also writes that the Obama administration also has ignored a serious regression in political freedoms in Malaysia, maintained the close bilateral relationship with Thailand even as a military junta took over in Bangkok, and spent little time working on relations with the new Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, as authentic a democrat as you will get anywhere.

The Washington Post editorial board last week echoed these same sentiments. In an editorial, the board focused on the growing crackdown on dissent in Malaysia, noting that, “Mr. Obama has made a point of cultivating [Malaysian Prime Minister] Najib [tun Razak] and his government as part of his policy of ‘rebalancing’ toward Asia, and so far the administration has had little to say about the political crackdown [in Malaysia].”

I have been detailing the administration’s lack of interest in democracy promotion and human rights issues in Southeast Asia for several years now, including in a book, a working paper, and many articles. But though it’s nice to see others hitting the same notes, I see little evidence that the White House’s policies are changing. The president still has said nothing about Anwar Ibrihim’s trial, which almost surely will conclude with him being sentenced this week or next. The White House has been mum about the general deteriorating climate of free speech in Malaysia, which Anwar’s case fits into.

The administration also has decided to push ahead with rapprochement with Myanmar despite the country’s deteriorating political environment, and the White House has made the decision to keep the Cobra Gold multilateral military exercises in Thailand in 2015. The decision to retain Cobra Gold in Thailand is a choice the Thai (military) government is interpreting as a signal that U.S.-Thai relations are returning to normal, even though Thai politics surely is not. As Human Rights Watch notes, the Thai government continues to ban public gatherings and has detained hundreds of activists and journalists and academics; the initial reporting of the government’s plans for a return to legislative rule suggest that the legislature will be comprised in an extremely gerrymandered way that allows people in Bangkok to dominate despite being, numerically, a minority of the population.

As the Banyan column notes, these decisions have a cumulative effect, and that effect is not just a symbolic tarnishing of ideals. Ignoring rights in Asia, Banyan writes:

Has a cost….It squanders part of America’s “soft power,” a great asset.…For all its flaws and missteps, [America] represents not just economic and military might, but an ideal to aspire to, in a way that China does not. And when American leaders appear to give less weight to that ideal, they not only diminish America’s attractions, they also lend more credence to the idea of its relative economic and military decline.

Having written for The Economist, I know its editors love one-word sentences, so I can say only…Indeed.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by C.Sorley

    “although I think that overall the administration has badly ignored human rights and democracy promotion in its strategy of re-engagement with Southeast Asia, I think Washington needs to build much closer ties with Vietnam no matter the country’s rights record.”


  • Posted by John Malott

    Josh, as a former US Ambassador to Malaysia and someone who has been commenting for years on the Malaysian Government’s suppression of political freedom and human rights, I concur with you whole-heartedly.

    It is shocking that a President from the Democratic Party, which traditionally has been concerned with human rights and democracy overseas (going back to Woodrow Wilson), should be so callous about the situation in Malaysia and now Thailand.

    It is equally puzzling that our first minority President should be so silent as minorities in Malaysia (Chinese, Indian, Christian) are persecuted, Bibles are confiscated, and wedding ceremonies and funerals are interrupted by the religious police.

    It also is troubling that an academically and intellectually gifted person such as Obama would swallow, hook line and sinker, the claims that Najib has made about Malaysia (and himself) being moderate and tolerant.

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