Jazzing Up a Forum

Democracy is like motherhood. Everybody is for it; in most circles, if you denigrate it people will wonder what planet you come from.

So some people are asking, what is the point of holding the annual Bali Democracy Forum, Asia’s sole intergovernmental forum on democracy, if the most it can achieve is the elaboration of the obvious? Moreover, because the forum does not allow finger pointing, its proceedings will often leave you with pious statements by representatives of authoritarian regimes pretending to aspire to become democracies.

But participation in the forum keeps growing every year. This year, it was attended by 12 heads of governments and high-level representatives from 63 participating countries and observer organizations. There must be something to it.

The fact is that democracy fascinates because of its sheer complexity. The dumbest thing you can say about it is that it is rule by the majority. It is actually an attempt to build an optimal relationship among human beings. That’s why it’s inseparable from human rights in a state of tension with human responsibilities. That’s why it’s inseparable from rule of law. And inseparable from economics.

Unfortunately for the forum this year, it was held at a time when all humankind, including the international press, was riveted with the emotional afterglow of a sensationalized US presidential election.

There is also a view, however, that the international mass media actually snubbed the forum. If that’s the case, then it is as much their loss as the forum’s.

When rulers, whether elected or not, talk of how they go about their jobs, we should listen to them and weigh their words against their deeds and the fruits of their deeds. That is the only way we can tell whether or not they make sense, whether they know what they are doing or merely dishing out platitudes. If we don’t listen we may never know the ideas behind their successes and failures.

While the rules of the forum do not allow finger pointing by participants, those restrictions do not apply to members of the media covering the event. There are no restrictions to fair comment. Nor are there restrictions to media access to the speakers.

Speakers can also be surprising, suddenly saying something that is a revelation about what is happening in his or her country. As when the Myanmar representative told the forum that Aung San Suu Kyi had been appointed head of a special parliamentary committee “for the purpose of enforcing the rule of law in the country.” Now we wait with bated breath to see whether, given that mandate, she actually gets to work or sticks to making generic statements on the situation in Rakhine.

While it is definitely useful for leaders and high government officials to keep sharing experiences in the pursuit of political development, it might be even more profitable for the Bali Democracy Forum to grow beyond its self-imposed limit to serving only as a platform for governments.

If the forum were to allow the participation of civil society representatives in a courteous and constructive exchange of views, the result could well be a surge of popular interest in the process. More important, there would be a great improvement in the quality of the exchange of views and experiences, while maintaining its rules of decorum.

And if the forum is interested in acquiring greater depth, it can’t do much better than inviting the likes of such thoughtful eminences as Joseph Nye, Jeffrey Sachs and Southeast Asia’s own Kishore Mahbubani to address the participants.

Then even if Israel bombs Iran while the forum is in progress, there’s a chance the international press will still give it some coverage.

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