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 , Asia Institute, The University of Melbourne
Dr Ken Setiawan
Asia Institute, The University of Melbourne
Ken Setiawan is a McKenzie Research Fellow at The University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute and an Affiliate Researcher at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR), Columbia University. She holds a PhD in Law (2013), Master of Arts (2004) and an undergraduate degree in Indonesian languages and cultures from Leiden University, The Netherlands. Ken’s research, teaching and engagement interests are at the intersection of legal anthropology, history, politics and society in Asia, with an emphasis on Indonesia. In her research, she is interested in the promotion, manifestation and contestation of human rights at global, national and local levels, particularly with regard to coming to terms with past human rights violations. Ken is author of Promoting Human Rights: National Human Rights Commissions in Indonesia and Malaysia (Leiden University Press, 2013) and she has published in journals including the Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Global Change, Peace and Security.
Professor Meredith Weiss
Professor Weiss has held visiting fellowships or professorships also at universities and institutes in Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore, as well as the US, most recently as Visiting Associate Professor in Southeast Asia Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (201314). Weiss is the author of Student Activism in Malaysia: Crucible, Mirror, Sideshow (Cornell SEAP/NUS Press, 2011) and Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia (Stanford, 2006), as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters. She has edited or coedited six books—most recently, The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Malaysia (forthcoming), Electoral Dynamics in Malaysia: Findings from the Grassroots (ISEAS/SIRD, 2013) and Global Homophobia: States, Movements, and the Politics of Oppression (Illinois, 2013). Her research addresses political mobilization and contention, the politics of development, civil society, nationalism and ethnicity, and electoral change in Southeast Asia. Weiss has previously served as chair of the Southeast Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies and has served in several positions in the American Political Science Association (APSA) and component sections.