Can Civil Society Safeguard Rights in Asia – And for Whom and How?


Can Civil Society Safeguard Rights in Asia – And for Whom and How?

Yasuko Hiraoka Myer Room, Level 1
Sidney Myer Asia Centre


Sometime around the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Cold War waned, academic attention to civil society surged. This domain of autonomous, voluntary associational life, scholars proposed, just might hold the key to democracy, human rights – essentially all good things. It took little time for the pessimists to chime in: corners of that sphere are decidedly uncivil, politicians quickly crowd out idealistic activists, civil society organisations themselves may be unrepresentative and undemocratic. And then the attention faded, as did many of the democracies it heralded. Now again we find regimes in flux globally, as populists, xenophobes and autocrats muscle their way onto the political stage. With this current age of political anxiety has come renewed attention to civil society: can it save imperfect democracies from themselves?

These questions are especially germane across Asia, where experience of regime liberalisation confirms just how messy, multivalent and insecure that process may be. Opening the public sphere does allow for full-throated rights claims – but also for equally vociferous demands for exclusivity in defining the community invested with those rights. Being accepted into world markets as no longer a pariah allows progress toward human development goals – but it also encourages deference to business interests, including leapfrogging from pre- to post-‘political’ agenda-setting and participation in policy processes. And the fact of more free, fair electoral contestation need not favour ‘progressive’ contenders, committed to democratic legitimacy and norms. Even so, this talk will argue that the fact of those transitions Asian states have seen strengthens discourses and alliances, with spill-over effects across border, while structural changes to media, markets, and more increase transparency, information flows, and durability. The current balance warrants ambivalence and careful strategising, but does offer space for civil society to play key roles in claiming and maintaining rights.


  • Dr Ken  Setiawan
    Dr Ken Setiawan , Asia Institute, The University of Melbourne
  • Professor Meredith  Weiss