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Teaching Human Rights in Thailand
Coeli Barry speaking in Royce Hall

Teaching Human Rights in Thailand

Demands for personal liberty make headway against claims that they contradict Asian values.

By Jennifer Du

The idea of human rights is often looked on as a Western import in Asian countries. In the late 1990s in the “Asian values” debate, Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore took the lead in opposing demands for political liberty as mere self-indulgent individualism incompatible with traditional Asian communal values. This view took a setback in the regional economic crisis of 1997-99, but remains a strong current in the area. American scholar Coeli Barry, on a visit to UCLA April 29, discussed her experience in presenting the contrary view to students from across Southeast Asia in a class she teaches at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand.

Barry, who earned her PhD at Cornell University, has spent the last several years in Thailand as a lecturer at both Mahidol and Thammasat universities. Her husband, who is a native of Thailand, is a historian at Thammasat University.

Mahidol University offers the only Masters Degree program in Southeast Asia that has an explicit human rights component, its International Master of Arts Program in Human Rights and Social Development. Coeli Barry teaches the course on “Fundamentals and Development of the Philosophy of Human Rights,” a core course for entering MA students. Her students, she said, “come from Burma, Cambodia, Philippines, Nepal, Thailand, India, and Indonesia.”

European Origins of Idea of Human Rights

Barry said that she tells her students that the political idea of human rights did arise in Europe, from the late 17th century on to the mid-18th century, and had its first peak in the French and American revolutions. This first phase fell into the background of other movements during the 19th and 20th centuries when matters of national freedom and democracy took precedence over the issue of human rights. A second phase of the human rights movement began at the close of World War II, when human rights became institutionalized by organizations such as the United Nations. “We are now in a third phase,” Barry said, “which has seen a surge in the effort to achieve universal human rights.”

Barry described this phase as a breakthrough for the movement, “as the language and demand of human rights is becoming increasingly uniform even in countries that are very different from one another. People are beginning to have a universal understanding of what human rights are and they are holding the state accountable in maintaining those rights.”

Southeast Asian Perspectives

Barry explained that the major inhibitors of the human rights movement in Southeast Asia are the region’s lack of a human rights history and the recent promotion of the “Asian value system” that directly contradicts the movement. “Southeast Asia as a whole, has a legacy of authoritarian rule, slavery, and powerful monarchies. These institutions have left long-lasting impressions on the region and its peoples, impressions which oppose the idea of human rights altogether.”

Barry said her students, who came from many countries of Southeast Asia, were often activists of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that had as part of their goals the legislation of various kinds of civil liberties and individual democratic rights. She was particularly impressed with students from the Philippines, which has had the strongest pro-rights public attitudes in the region. She pointed in particular to significant research published by the Institute for Popular Democracy, a Philippine NGO. At the other end of the spectrum is Burma, which has an extremely repressive regime. Malaysia leans the same way, with Mahathir, a 76-year-old autocrat, at the helm of state with his strongly anti-Western stance on political liberties and other issues. The Malaysian case is somewhat tempered by its strong economy.

Barry felt that there have been general improvements in political liberty in the area, notably in Thailand itself. She added, however, that her students still felt defensive about championing a foreign idea, and were very interested in finding local precedents for the demands they were raising in their off-campus political activity, in order to indigenize their proposals.

Barry’s talk at UCLA was sponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (http://www.international.ucla.edu/cseas).

Center for Southeast Asian Studies