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Does Asia’s silence mean consent?

Updated On: Jun 19, 2009

Simon Tay for TODAY Global Citizen

The Iranian election results have been met by angry protests in some quarters and silence in others. Angry voices swell among Iranians in the country and abroad who doubt the election results that returned incumbent Ahmadinejad by a landslide.

They lead a worldwide and internet savvy campaign asking “where is my vote?” European governments including the UK and Germany have taken the moral high ground, strongly calling for accountability and verification of the result.

In contrast, the USA and Asia have been quiet and careful. There is probably some preference in DC for Mousavi, touted as a reformist. But President Obama's administration has to engage Iran if it is to prevent the country pursuing a path towards nuclear weapons. Another geopolitical consideration is that Iran is important for the US to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan. So no matter who the winner is, the US needs to deal with the Iranian government, and must be pragmatic.

For Asia's emerging powers, geopolitical reasons also mean silence, ambivalence or support for the results.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang voiced respect for "the choice of the Iranian people" and called for stability after the elections. China has considerable interest in Iran's energy resources. While differences with the US over Iran have been minimized in recent years, Beijing has carefully avoided joining in reprimanding or imposing sanctions.

For India, ties with Iran have strategic implications for the Afghanistan-Pakistan issue. There are also hopes for a pipeline that will stretch from Iran to India, through Pakistan, which would help meet Indian energy needs. Internally, India is the world's most populous democracy, but it has generally not been an active advocate for democracy abroad.

Another big Asian democracy has also supported the results in Iran. Indonesia is reported to say it "congratulates the people of Iran for exercising their vote with a high turnout, and a peaceful and orderly process. We respect the election result from the voting of the Iranian people that re-elected President Ahmadinejad."

This may disappoint some who have seen Indonesia's democracy develop over the last decade and deliver credible results, including the most recent Parliamentary elections. Indonesia has taken steps to reduce voter fraud, corruption and used “quick count” methods to reduce electoral irregularities and uncertainties despite a populous and dispersed archipelago. Indonesia also invited in external monitors for earlier elections – which Iran did not.

But Indonesia's position shows up how economic interests outweigh democratic ideology. Trade between the two Muslim countries has been growing, especially in the energy sector, and by 2008 was over US$500 million. When Indonesia served on the UN security council in 2007, it often wavered over complaints about Iran's nuclear program. Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudoyhono has even supported Iran's right to peacefully develop nuclear energy.

Other Asian countries have yet to make their positions known. Some have reacted to protests, like Malaysia where police were reported to have used tear gas to break up a noisy protest in KL held by Iranians against the result.

But it seems unlikely that Asians will take a strong stance as have the Europeans. If the larger Asian powers have geopolitical and economic interests at stake, others have quite the opposite reason – they lack sufficient interest in Iran.

Many governments may plead that it is difficult to know if the results are indeed rigged since Iran did not allow independent international monitoring. It is true that allegations of irregularity are based on conjecture and hypotheses. That, for example, it is incredulous that official results show Moussavi losing even in his home state and among those who share his ethnicity. But the lack of hard evidence lends a fig leaf for silence.  

What I hope Asian silence does not mean is that no one much cares about the veracity of elections. The region will face a series of upcoming elections, in countries where polls have sometimes been less than free and fair.

The Indonesian presidential elections will be held in the coming months. Talk is that elections in Thailand may be called before the year is up. Next year, we can expect elections in the Philippines for a new president. Even in Myanmar, the regime has promised polls in 2010 as part of its road map to democracy.  

Often in Asia, protests have followed elections and sometimes -- in the Philippines and Thailand – these have led to a change of leaders. We must therefore hope that some meaning of “free and fair elections” can be agreed, and measures put in place to verify results.

Democracy is now the key legitimating factor for governments in Asia and across the world, and elections are its foundation stone. Silence over the Iranian elections may be seem necessary because of larger strategic concerns over nuclear proliferation. Silence can be excused if there is NO clearer evidence that results were rigged.

But the lesson cannot be that Asians will keep silent because a country can promise energy resources and economic deals, or has strategic importance. Countries like Myanmar can otherwise claim license to do what they want. Only weak and unimportant countries would be held accountable.

If those are the lessons Asians draw from the Iranian elections, it will not be only Iranians who suffer. So will Asian democracy.


Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in the USA.

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