19 February, 2009 - Through Struggle or amicable consensus, democracy has come to all the countries in south Asia today. But what’s still in debate is whether democracy has really replaced authoritarianism in South Asia?
As democracy dawns, this “yet-to-be reality,” was the issue that brought together about 200 journalists from every SAARC country at Cox’s Bazaar, a tourist resort of Bangladesh, to discuss democracy and authoritarianism in south Asia. The two-day conference saw journalists discussing, besides the state and independence of media in each country, the transition of governance from an elite few to the masses.
In one of his papers, the Secretary General of the South Asia free media association (SAFMA), Imtiaz Alam, presented a brief background of how democracy came to each country in the region.
It stated, “Afghanistan, with three decades of war and civil strife, presents an enigma of transition; Nepal had to give way to full-fledged democratic rule; Bhutan voluntarily opted for the path of constitutional and democratic rule; Sri Lanka, the longest surviving South Asian democracy, has seen a gradual evolution towards a unitary system of centralised governance; the recent elections in Pakistan have thrown up a very powerful republican government; a military backed transition in Bangladesh has finally come to an end and India as the biggest democracy in the world is the only country that has stood as a stable example of democracy in south Asia.”
A Pakistani-American sociologist and historian, Dr Ayesha Jalal, a history professor at Tufts university, who has also authored a book in 1995 titled “Democracy and authoritarianism in South Asia,” spoke about the distinction between formal and substantive democracy as well as covert and overt authoritarianism.
Her book states, “A formal democracy is a genuine democracy insofar as it guarantees, among other things, the right to vote and the freedom to expression. Yet it may not show all the features of its normative ideal, thus the notion of a substantive democracy.”
She defined authoritarianism as an organised power embedded in the institutional structure of the state. “Far from representing a neat and sharp dichotomy, democracy and authoritarianism are reflective of ongoing struggles between dominance and resistance.”
Pointing out the importance of civil societies and the media in a democracy, Dr Jalal said, “Because democracy is contentious, institutional mechanisms are needed to moderate conflicts between the individual and the community. “The media can play a very crucial and productive role in that enterprise.”
The conference also discussed that the Mumbai attack should not threaten South Asia. “It should compel South Asia to seek solutions to problems that are bound to become more trans-border than they are now,” said the consulting editor of The Friday Times, Lahore, Pakistan, Khaled Ahmed, in his paper.
Speaking at the concluding session of the conference, Bangladesh’s foreign minister Dr Dipu Moni said that freedom of expression is the building block for the development of democracy.
This was the seventh SAFMA conference. It ended on February 12 after the signing of the 25 points Cox’s Bazar declaration. Besides welcoming the surge of democracy in the region, the media persons declared their concern over the spread and spillover of terrorism in the region and to take serious note of the global recession, its implications for the region’s economies and its serious ramifications for media industry.
It was decided that the next SAFMA conference would be held in Bhutan.
By Sonam Pelden - firstname.lastname@example.org
Phuntsho Choden - email@example.com