By Basil Fernando –
The COVID-19 experience has sharply exposed the unsustainability of authoritarianism in countries in the Asian region. A proper and sustainable response to the pandemic is possible only in circumstances where there is an overwhelming agreement between the State and the people on the ways to deal with a very dangerous situation. Where there is no such agreement, the States will not be able to carry out various measures necessary to ensure the protection of all without the use of coercive methods. And, when there is disown-ness between the State and the people, the people will look for various ways to undermine such coercive measures. The result is that the ability to successfully deal with a problem like COVID-19 becomes ever more complicated. Such complications increase gradually to an extent that the authority of the State itself begin to lose its grip and legitimacy. This leads to many forms of confusions, which put the whole society at risk. Under those circumstances a country has to deal not only with COVID-19, but also face a possible societal collapse that is easily ignited under such circumstances. The whole project of running a nation on the basis of authoritarianism of whatever shade has proved unsustainable.
Most Asian countries today have authoritarian forms of governments. The mere fact that elections are held to elect a government does not alter that fact. All the processes needed to ensure fair and free elections are mostly absent. The idea of the one part of the State is what those who rely on authoritarian systems promote. Added to this is an industry of manufacturing consents through various forms of media, including the social media, which confuses the people and does not create space for the people to develop their own views on what needs to be done in their countries in order to ensure the wellbeing of their people and also to maintain law and order.
Those who argue in favour of authoritarian States base their argument on the fact that attempts to develop the rule of law and democratic state have proved fruitless in their countries. They attribute all the difficulties that the countries face, such as: the issue of unbearable debts owed to foreign institutions and countrie;, massive unemployment that affects every aspect of life; the crisis related to food and drinking water; and crises relating to health and education. All these contribute to the failure of democratic institutions to address these matters. They argue that the authority of a single person, or a small group of persons, could provide a better leadership to solve these problems. However, this argument has proved to be not only false, but extremely dangerous to society as a whole.
When such sharp problems, like the ones mentioned above, manifest themselves in societies, it is the ability of political leadership to win the confidence of people that provides the foundation on which measures can be taken to overcome the immediate problems, as well as larger problems that demand long term strategies. The belief that this getting the support of the people could be imposed from above and enforced on others leads to a willful blindness to all the problems that develop in the society.
The strength of any society is the strength of collective understanding and the collective will of the people living in that society. This requires the openness with which the people and the State can interact with each other. It is an ongoing dialogue within which the State and the people are constantly engaged. Within that context people understand the limitations which exist in given circumstances and attempt to take measures whereby they themselves impose certain limitations in order to ensure their individual well-being, as well as for their collective well-being. Without these sober reflections the people develop many forms of alienation and unexpressed anger, which in turn leads to people finding their own means to deal with their problems as they think fit. As a result the building of a general sense of discipline becomes almost an impossible task.
When this situation develops the unfortunate response of authoritarian systems is to give extraordinary powers to security forces and then to rely on the security forces to do things that by their very nature they are unable to do. Security forces can never replace civilian bureaucrats. It is the civilian bureaucracy, with authority to take necessary actions within the framework of the law and rules, that creates the linkage between the State and the people. This role cannot be played by the security forces.
When security forces within a society develop excessive powers they also displace civilian policing. Properly functioning civilian policing system is essential to the stability of any society. Civilian policing deals with the problems of law without relying on the excessive use of force, but instead establishes a rational relationship in matters of crime and other matters required for good governance. In modern circumstances a properly functioning civilian policing system cannot be replaced by security forces.
Authoritarian systems in many Asian countries have proved very demonstratively is that they destroy the basic infrastructure of running social relationships on the basis of mutual respect and taking action for the wellbeing of the people as a whole.
COVID-19 has challenged the entire project of authoritarianism in a very fundamental way. The impact of this challenge cannot be erased. The future of social life in the countries affected by the authoritarian systems will very much depend on the manner in which the creative abilities of everyone – the people, intellectuals, as well as those persons with sober political minds – attempt to replace the unsustainable authoritarian systems with viable, rational forms of governance.