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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

DISSENT

TESTING LIMITS
Asia's political gadflies are prodding governments to open up

By Susan Berfield


CHINA'S GOVERNMENT IS TOUGH on critics. Those who complain publicly about crime, the credit crunch, even corruption are on safe ground. But those who openly challenge the authorities on political issues get a rough ride. Many are jailed, or, like Liu Gang, are in exile. Liu served a six-year prison term for his leading role in the 1989 pro-democracy protests, and claims he had been closely watched by police ever since his release last year. Fearing he would be detained again, the 34-year-old chose to leave. He arrived in the United States on May 1.

While Beijing's tolerance of dissent is low, elsewhere in Asia it is slowly -- though unevenly -- rising as members of a well-educated and well-off middle class begin calling for governments to become more open and accountable. The tone of the discussion shifts with the terrain, but in most places those willing to speak out are more bold, and some more aggressive, than their predecessors were just five years ago.

What is called provocative in Kuala Lumpur is likely to be acceptable in Bangkok -- and even expected in Manila. President Fidel Ramos's sister Leticia Shahani says that "part of [the president's] daily schedule is to receive criticism." One of his chief tormentors is Teodoro "Teddyboy" Locsin, Jr. The 47-year-old publisher, editor-in-chief, and columnist of Manila's Today newspaper is sarcastic, biting, and merciless. In other words, he is the quintessential Filipino gadfly. He has called Ramos's Lakas-NUCD "a party of thieves," the Philippine National Police "the greatest criminal organization in the country," and the judiciary "corrupt, stupid, and pliant."

Elsewhere in the region, though, limits, however ill-defined, still exist. And where there are limits, there will be individuals to test them.

Irene Fernandez, a social activist in Malaysia, and Chirmsak Pinthong, a TV talk show host in Bangkok, have recently paid the price for going too far. Fernandez, 49, heads Tenaganita (Women's Force), a non-governmental organization that campaigns for the rights of oppressed groups. She was arrested in March for allegedly providing false information in a report on migrant worker abuse. Issued last July, the report detailed the appalling conditions and deaths at government camps for detained foreign workers. It contained the now-famous quote: "We have slavery in our midst."

The government has since improved the treatment of such workers. Fernandez, though, still faces trial. If convicted, she could face three years in jail and a fine of $8,000. Her case will be heard next month. Fernandez isn't counting on a reprieve. "Those in power are able to make use of the media to create a negative image of people like me," she says. "They like to suggest we are troublemakers, anti-government, anti-development, foreign influenced. I would deny all that. All we are is pro-people."

Chirmsak, 45, describes himself as a messenger, with a knowing look about what happens to those who bear bad news. Just before last July's parliamentary election that brought Prime Minister Banharn Silapa-archa to power, the jovial university professor invited Banharn onto his show "Looking from Different Perspectives." Chirmsak grilled Banharn about who he might appoint to his cabinet if he became premier. Banharn wasn't very forthcoming, and Chirmsak kept pressing. The prime minister apparently has not forgotten the embarrassment.

Soon after, one of Chirmsak's TV shows was suspended. Then in February, the network axed "Perspectives," which had survived five governments. His radio programs have also been canceled. "Some quote, power, unquote, stopped them," says Chirmsak. The longtime activist may be less prominent now, but the Banharn government remains a target for criticism. "The press cannot topple a government," says Chirmsak. "It can only reflect whether people have lost faith in the government."

The notion that the press should work in concert with the government is receding, but so slowly -- and so unpredictably in some countries -- that journalists can quickly find themselves in trouble. That is what happened to Indonesian TV personality Wimar Witular. His weekly show "Perspektif" was witty, insightful, the talk of Jakarta -- until the station pulled the plug last September. The cancellation came after Witular interviewed Judge Benjamin Mangkudilaga, who had ruled that the government's 1994 banning of the popular newsmagazine Tempo was illegal.

Still, the 50-year-old management consultant and former academic is now the first syndicated columnist in the country; 13 newspapers feature his writing. The editors of Tempo, meanwhile, have headed to cyberspace. They launched an electronic edition of the magazine in March. So far the government is keeping its distance.

In Hong Kong, political commentators must navigate the increasingly rough transition from British colonial rule to mainland sovereignty. As CEO of a publishing group that prints the Chinese-language editions of Playboy and Forbes, the mild-mannered Albert Cheng Jinghan, 49, could have watched the transfer of power from the comfort of his executive suite. The former student activist would have, too, except that the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 made him realize that "this society will not be a healthy one without any opposition voices."

So he and Raymond Wong, now publisher of Mad Dog Daily, began hosting the weekly TV show "Talk of the Town." More than once they shouted at the government officials and pro-Beijing figures they invited on air. Despite high ratings, station bosses canceled the show. He hasn't been silenced, though. Today his three-hour morning radio show of commentary and phone-in conversation, "Teacup in a Storm," is among the territory's most popular. "I want to voice the anger of people here," he says.

In Singapore, author Catherine Lim stirred up debate in 1994 by writing two articles for The Straits Times newspaper that among other things blamed the government for "the growing alienation of the people." In his rebuttal, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said his authority should not be challenged by "writers on the fringe." Lim has not published any other political articles in local papers since. "I wish I were able to persuade The Straits Times to publish more political commentaries from me," she told Asiaweek. "I will just keep trying."

Singaporean Gopal Baratham has been luckier. After a 25-year career as a neurosurgeon at a government hospital, Baratham published his first novel in 1991. A Candle or the Sun was described as an unabashed critique of Singapore's political climate. "It's not that I want to irritate, but I just speak my mind," he says. "You should criticize the faults if you care for the society." So far the 60-year-old doctor has done so with immunity. "Some people say I'm the government's token liberal. What can I say?" he shrugs.

Today's critics are pushing the boundaries of dissent, and sometimes being pushed back. "The issue of openness will be worked out in a three-steps-forward, two-steps-back dance with the government, exasperating some while giving hope to others," Lim told a forum of ASEAN young leaders in Singapore last October. Perhaps the next generation of government gadflies will not have it so hard.

-- Reporting from Bangkok, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Singapore


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