What is so far the only organization of Asian liberals and democrats had its beginnings in another continent, and over bottles of beer. It was in the early 1990s, and an international conference of liberals was being held at Portugal’s picturesque coastal town. As Filipino liberal politician Florencio Abad recalls it, he and a couple of other delegates from Taiwan and Thailand felt like taking a break from the official proceedings. Intending to unwind over a few drinks, they motored down to Lisbon with a German colleague, where they found a restaurant to their liking. What was supposed to be a night of relaxation, however, soon became an evening of serious musings. It turned out that the Asians had been feeling rather out of place at the conference, where the issues being talked about were so far removed from those that concerned their countries. There was, Abad would say later, simply no Asian agenda being discussed.
By the time the small group returned to Sintra, the idea of forming a new organization — one that would be exclusively for Asian liberals – had already been discussed with enthusiasm. After all, there was increasing agitation for democratic reforms across Asia at the time. Just a few years before, a bloodless “People Power” revolution had toppled a military-backed dictatorship in the Philippines. This had apparently inspired the citizens of other countries in the region, which was pockmarked with authoritarian regimes, to speak up as well. More and more peoples who had been oppressed for decades were suddenly rediscovering their voices. Some regimes responded to this with brutality, but there were also those which had begun to relax their grip, allowing a small, yet significant, breathing space for democratic initiatives. To the Asian liberals then at Sintra, it made perfect sense to offer support to the growing pro-democratic forces in the region. One way to do this, they thought, was to set up an organization that would act as a forum for liberal and democratic ideas in Asia. This would not only encourage a common understanding of the basic principles of liberal democracy, but would also help the liberals form appropriate responses to problems.
Turning an Idea into Reality
For the next two years, concept papers flew across the region as the proponents of the proposed organization exchanged thoughts on how to go about setting it up. Liberals from other Asian countries also joined in the discussions. But it still took a while to get everything on track because, observes Abad, “Asians are not used to getting together. (They) were relating more to their former colonizers. There was very little interaction among Asians. We were not developing leaders who were thinking Asia. They were just thinking about their own country and that was it.”
What kept them going, though, was the awareness that for all the differences in their countries’ situations, there existed a vast common ground on which they could work together. At the very least, they were part of a region that happened to be the most exciting arena in terms of democratic development – even though it was also home to some of the most repressive regimes.
Sukhumbhand Paribatra of Thailand’s Democrat Party would also say later, “Many of us Asians share one another’s problems, and many of us are at a similar status of political, social, and economic development… (And) in terms of ideals, we talk the same language.”
Thus, on October 15, 1993, a preparatory meeting was finally organized in Taipei. The host, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, would become one of the founding members of the new group, along with the Democrat Party of Thailand, the Democratic Party of Korea, the Liberal Party of the Philippines, the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party of Cambodia, and the Parti Gerakan Rakyat of Malaysia. There would be some debates over what to call the group (some thought “caucus” was more appropriate), but in the end the organization would be baptized the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats. It would also be decided that each party would take turns heading the Council, the change in chairmanship taking place every two years.
By December 1993, the group (then still called a “caucus”) was holding its inaugural general assembly in Bangkok, the occasion graced by then Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai and Korean opposition leader Kim Dae Jung. Three months later, CALD had its first strategic planning session, also in Bangkok. By November 1994, CALD was having its first major conference, which aptly enough concentrated on “Liberal Democracy in the Asian Context.” The conference, which was held in Manila, had among its guests of honor Philippine former President Fidel V. Ramos and then Jovito R. Salonga, Senate President and head of the Liberal Party of the Philippines.
From Seminars to Rallies
CALD has since held major annual conferences, each concentrating on a timely topic, such as the political impact of the Asian economic crisis, globalization, official development assistance, migration and human trafficking, populism, ethnic and religious minorities, among others. Abad says the dialogues and the discussions that take place in CALD conferences give participants “a broader perspective of the issues,” enabling them to look at proposed policies in their respective countries with a more discerning eye.
Some of the conference papers have been collected and turned into books, all of which have been met favorably. The books – and the conferences – have helped raise awareness not only about CALD, but also about what it stands for. In late 2002, CALD and its activities gained even wider attention when it teamed up with the European Liberal Democratic Reform (ELDR) Party for a meeting on the common challenges for liberals and democrats in Asia and Europe. Held in the Korean parliament in Seoul, the meeting marked the start of other collaborations between CALD and the ELDR. In May 2003, then ELDR President Werner Hoyer was among the guests of honor at what CALD considers as a breakthrough conference in Sri Lanka – being the first CALD ever had in South Asia. Since 2004, CALD has held biennial conferences with its European counterparts through the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Group in the European Parliament.
In between all these, CALD has been busy organizing workshops and seminars. These are aimed at honing and upgrading the political skills of youth/women leaders and pro-democracy supporters, as well as building the capabilities of the member parties. The workshops have included those on party/election management and political communication; for those with more specific needs, special workshops have been conducted, such as one on constitution-making for Burmese democrats.
The Council has also issued statements of support for those being denied their rights by their respective governments. But, says Abad, who was CALD chairman in 1999 to 2000, “we have gone from making statements to conducting actual visits, supporting their election campaigns – DPP in Taiwan, the (SRP Party) in Cambodia – visiting people in jail.” In addition, CALD members have gone to neighboring countries as observers during elections.
Former CALD Secretary General Bi-khim Hsiao of Taiwan remarked: “Over the years, members of CALD have developed a wide variety of common visions through close exchanges, conferences, workshops and visits. The issues raised and shared among our members have been timely, even visionary.”
It helps that unlike other regional groupings, CALD is composed of parties and individuals and not governments. Members of the Council are thus not restrained by government positions and official policies. Because of this, the group is allowed flexibility in its decisions and actions.
CALD, however, has not escaped having a few difficulties. The logistics of getting people together for a meeting, for instance, can get very complicated. The one-China policy adopted by some countries has also posed some problems for the group, its member parties and their representatives. Various circumstances have prompted Southeast Asian members to rethink the non-intervention policy observed in their sub-region. As observed by Sukhumbhand, former Thai deputy foreign minister and former CALD chairperson: “Certain issues have challenged our ingenuity and our ways of doing things.”
Indeed, while the Council’s members may have slightly different interpretations of liberalism, and democracy, tackling such issues has helped them sharpen their understanding of what binds them together, and underline the need for an organization like CALD. For sure, Sukhumbhand says, “we are not just voices in the wilderness, saying things that no one listens to.” The DPP’s recollection of what transpired in the Council’s second congress, held in Taipei in November 1995, is also telling of what kind of group CALD is: “Participants challenged the view espoused by certain Asian leaders…that democracy is a Western concept not suitable for Asian cultural traditions. While some representatives lamented over the unwanted competition of ‘who has the worst case’ of authoritarianism in their home country, others reported on successful strategies for overcoming obstacles. Throughout the discussion, there was a clear consensus that it is in the interest of sustained economic development that political freedom and civic rights are not denied to the people. The active, creative, and well-informed citizen who makes the economy thrive is unlikely to take…tutelage from the state.”
More than twenty years after the founding of CALD, Asia continues to host some of most oppressive governments in the world. Democracy, however, has made considerable inroads in the region. South Korea, for example, has not looked back at its authoritarian past after having its first democratically elected president in 1988. In 1998, then Indonesia’s President Suharto was forced to step down after three decades of iron rule. Two years afterwards, it was Taiwan’s turn to see someone from the democratic opposition finally lead the government.
As democratic reforms multiply in Asia, so too have CALD’s members. True, two of its founding member-parties — the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party of Cambodia and the Democratic Party of Korea – have ceased to exist. The present CALD roster of member-parties, however, now includes the Singapore Democratic Party, Sri Lanka’s Liberal Party, the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle, Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, the Liberal Party of the Philippines, the Civil Will Green Party of Mongolia, the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan, the Democrat Party of Thailand, and the Cambodia National Rescue Party. CALD has also opened its membership to like-minded individuals, and regularly engages with non-member political parties from Myanmar, Indonesia, Japan, Kyrgyzstan and South Korea with which it shares the same democratic values.
“Through CALD, political parties, groups, and individuals have a continuing discussion on the developments occurring in the region. CALD events promote discussion and assess the possibilities for liberal solutions to the challenges that Asian democracies face”, says Mongolian parliamentarian and current CALD chairperson Oyun Sanjaasuren.
Joining CALD, says Sukhumbhand, is “not a question of need. It’s a question of opportunities. I think CALD provides good opportunities for liberals and democrats in Asia to exchange experiences learn from one another and inspire one another, even look after one another in some ways, and work together to propagate what we believe in.”
CALD member-parties attest to this. Sri Lanka’s Liberal Party, which is the group’s only member from South Asia thus far, says that it “has benefited in general from enhanced understanding of areas usually neglected in Sri Lanka, which has looked toward the West and the subcontinent, and previously looked to East Asia only for economic perspectives without understanding of the need for an open society to go with an open economy.”
Abad, for his part, says that being a member of CALD has helped the Philippines’ Liberal Party clarify supranational issues such as globalization and terrorism and the impact of these on local conditions. By being able to associate with distinguished democratic activists in the region, he adds, the party’s young leaders are now more able to think beyond Philippine borders.
More than being just a venue for discussions and debates, CALD also serves as a powerful voice for the oppressed. Nobel laureate and CALD Honorary Member Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, for one, said: “While I was incarcerated, CALD has been a consistent voice calling for my release and more importantly, for the restoration of freedom and democracy for Burma. Much work remains to be done and the solidarity of organizations like CALD is vital in our struggle. Aside from Burma, oppressive regimes still lord it over in many countries worldwide, including here in Asia. To CALD and its allies, please continue to use your freedom to promote ours.”
Similarly, former CALD chairperson and leader of the Cambodian opposition Sam Rainsy described CALD as “a candle that flickers during the darkest nights of Cambodia. CALD is international solidarity in action”
Not surprisingly, expectations on what CALD should do in the next decades are high. Comments the Democratic Progressive Party, currently the ruling party in Taiwan: “Over the years, through active programming, CALD has grown and strengthened to become the main network of democratic parties in Asia. The DPP expects CALD to continue to play the role of fostering younger democracies by helping to fortify political parties and multi-party political systems.”
Given CALD’s rich history and clear vision of the future, there is no doubt that the organization is up to the challenge.