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Welcome Address of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha Chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats at the Opening Session of the CALD General Assembly 2012, on the theme The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy.

Hon Rauff Hakeem, Minister of Justice, colleagues from the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats and from the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka, distinguished guests and friends, I am honoured to welcome all of you to the CALD General Assembly, on the theme The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy. This event is taking place in Sri Lanka after a gap of only two years. While we are glad to be able to host it, I am sorry about the circumstances that have caused this unusual repeat performance.

Both my predecessor and my successor as Chair of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats come from countries where there are actual threats to the democratic process, and harsh measures to muzzle the opposition. My predecessor was Dr Chee Son Juan of the Singapore Democrat Party, my successor will be Sam Rainsy of the Cambodian Sam Rainsy Party. My predecessor is not permitted to leave Singapore, my successor cannot enter Cambodia.

The first was convicted repeatedly in courts which sadly do not draw criticism from Western democracies that profess concern for justice and the rule of law. Unfortunately economic and political affinities count more than principle, and except for the Liberal International, which last year awarded Dr Chee its Prize for Freedom, institutions purportedly devoted to freedom allow the Singapore government a blank cheque. Laws that do not conform to basic principles of justice or democracy are not allowed to take away from its well touted status as a remarkably free country on various indices.

The Cambodian situation is even more peculiar. There the Leader of the Opposition following the last election, my colleague and successor Sam Rainsy, had his Parliamentary immunity taken away, and would face incarceration were he to return to Cambodia. This is unfortunately nothing new, for it happened to him a few years back too. This time round, it has now been established that the offence which first led to charges was not an offence at all. But political victimization does not require rationality or consistency. More remarkable I believe is the manner in which countries that should know better continue to fall over themselves to provide assistance to Cambodia. But I suppose this is not surprising, given the opportunities not just for investment, but for exploitation that a complacent regime offers.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

March 2012
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