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FOCUS September 1999 Volume 17

The Synthesis of Western and Eastern Thought in Asian Declarations and Constitutions Preceding the 1948 UDHR

Nandini Mascarenhas

During the late 19th and early 20th century, a wave of social reformist sentiment swept through Asia. No longer willing to endure any further social and political oppression at the hands of local and foreign imperialists, the peoples of the region sought to recover and promote what they perceived to be their own inherent rights. The Burakumin's Suiheisha Declaration of 1922 (Japan), the Filipinos' Malolos Constitution of 1899, and the Indonesian Constitution of 1945 were conceived out of these aspirations. They reflect the regional consensus "on the centrality of human rights to sound and moral government and law" [1] and illustrate Asia's independent initiatives to advance the idea of human rights prior to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

The Suiheisha Declaration of 1922, the Malolos Constitution of 1899, and the Indonesian Constitution of 1945 were all based in varying degrees on the fusion of Western and Eastern thought. The drafters of the documents were of the educated elite and through their cultural interaction with the West they discovered that Western philosophies complemented their own native idealized notions. Consequently, they adapted the philosophies of Marxism, individualism, and integralism "to the context of their nation and lined them with the fundamental convictions of the people in respect to human rights." [2] Although the term human rights was popularized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the philosophy of human being having inherent rights was reflected in all three preceding documents. While the Suiheisha Declaration of 1922 marked the beginning of the Buraku Liberation League by uniting all the Burakumin, or discriminated people in Japanese society, under the common aspiration of raising their status through social revolution, the Malolos and the Indonesian Constitutions created shortly after their respective independence from the European colonial powers of Spain and the Netherlands, reflected for the first time the people's own ideals.

The Suiheisha Declaration of 1922, influenced by Marx and Lenin's theory of class conflict, marked the beginning of the Buraku Liberation League. The Burakumin had been traditionally Japanese farmers and tanners. Upon the promulgation of the Social Status Ordinance in 1591, the Burakumin were relegated a rank below the three-tier caste system (warriors, farmers, merchants and artisans). The means to escape their status became impossible during the Tokugawa shogunate regime (1542-1616) when various regulations consigned the Burakumin to certain dwelling-places, occupations, land possessions..." [3] While the Emancipation Edict of 1903, passed under the enlightened Meiji dynasty (1868-1912), abolished the caste system, the elevation of the Burakumin's status was countered by an increase in social discrimination due to the failure of the government to ensure social and economic equality for them.[4] The Burakumin, like the Untouchables of India, continued to be considered less than human in the eyes of society.

The Suiheisha Declaration of 1922 was a rallying cry for the oppressed Burakumin to reject the caste system that condemned them to a life without hope: "In rewarding for skinning beasts, they were robbed of live human skin; at the cost of tearing off the hearts of beasts, their own hearts were ripped out...The time has come to be proud of your Eta (humble being)." [5] The declaration emphasized the Burakumin's quest for the most basic right of all: the inherent right to life: "all through the cursed nights of evil dreams, their (ancestors') human blood full of pride kept flowing. We find ourselves in the age when we inherit their qualities by this blood, are going to become godlike." [6] Jiichiro Matsumoto, the leader of the Suiheisha Movement and a member of the Japanese Communist Party, incorporating Marxism in the context of the Buraku movement, did not espouse violent revolution, and instead sought the public self-criticism of individuals, who were found guilty of discrimination by the Buraku struggle committees. [7]

Marxism served to enhance the Buddhist philosophy found at the heart of the Suiheisha Declaration of 1922 that called for the enlightenment of all people: "Let there be light upon all mankind!" [8] In this state the Burakumin believed they could endure criticism and ill treatment with extraordinary patience. Through enlightenment, they would find a release from suffering and be freed from the social burden of their status.

While the Burakumin in Japan had been influenced by Marx to rise in defiance of social incarceration, the Malolos Constitution of 1899 echoed the truths of Hobbes and Locke. The propagandists, responsible for converting the social reformist movement from a few individuals to the aspirations of the masses, fused Western and Eastern thought, in the form of Christianity that had amassed a devout following in the Philippines and become an integral aspect of the native culture. Apolinario Mabini, a Filipino nationalist, expounding on the ideas of Jose Rizal and Emilio Jacinto, declared that the "right to life, the equality of men, and the right to happiness, were all inalienable, having God as the ultimate source." [9] According to the natural laws, God gave rights to the people and therefore it was the obligation of the government, God's representative on Earth, to preserve these rights.

However, for three centuries, the Spanish friars in the Philippines had failed to uphold Hobbes' Social Contract by abusing the powers entrusted to them by the Spanish government to administer the people and the land. They "physically and intellectually attempted to isolate the Filipinos from the outside world in order that they would not receive any impression other than which was convenient for them to have." [10] The friars denied them a means of livelihood and income by usurping their cultivated lands through unlawful means thereby coming into possession of 48 percent of the total agricultural land of "Cavite, Laguna, Manila Province, Bulacan, and Morong." [11] They refused to educate the Filipinos especially in the area of foreign languages. The people, therefore, could not express their desires and anxieties directly to the government but were dependent on the friars as intermediaries. As a result, a strong belief pervaded among the native population of the perversion of Christianity by the friars: "instead of being examples of Christian conduct to their flock in the town over which to rule, they are the embodiment of scandal because of their vices." [12] They acted in their own interests driven by a greed for wealth and power, corrupting the native concept of loob, purity of intention and feeling. The Malolos Constitution liberated the people from the "frailocracy" by returning all usurped property to the government and guaranteeing the right to an education, and re-presentation for the common people. This transformation of loob ensured "enlightenment, prosperity, and true brotherhood" for the Filipinos. [13]

While European culture had superimposed itself on the indigenous culture of the Philippines during the three centuries of colonial rule, resulting in its constitutional identity being more Western than Eastern in thought, the Japanese occupation of Indonesia had the opposite effect on its constitution. The Japanese Asiafication of the Indonesian archipelago, under its Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere plan, consisted of the use of Malay as the main language, the promotion of the native literature, and the practice of relying on priyayi, local indigenous elite, to rule the countryside. This had great cultural and political implications on the constitutional identity of Indonesia. Not only was the indigenous way of life promoted in its constitution but the Indonesians also gained experience in ruling their people, a role denied to the Filipinos by the Spanish friars.

The Indonesian Constitution, therefore, emphasized the Asian conceptualization of the existence of an individual as part of a larger group or community rather than as a single entity as in Western society. The drafters of the Indonesian Constitution believed that integralism that treated the state as "an integral arrangement of the society, where every region, every group, and every member of society is interrelated with all the others in the organic whole as the most appropriate for the Indonesian context." [14] They fused the complementary Western and Eastern philosophies by basing the state on Pancasila "democracy guided by the wisdom arising from consultation and representation, which shall ensure social justice for the whole Indonesian people." [15] They elected the people to the highest constitutional body, the People's Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusjawaratan Rakjat or MPR), regardless of their property or wealth status, and implemented the rule that all groups must be consulted before a decision could be passed in order to rectify what they perceived to be the flaws of the western and individualistic form of representation.

According to the Pancasila democracy, the state was to be based on unity and religion. The western philosophy of integralism was fused with the do-minant native religion in order to create a state that protected the interests of the whole community where Islam was not the state religion, but rather recognized as the dominant religion: "the state should be based on Belief in the One Supreme God according to a just and civilized humanitarianism." [16] Freedom of worship was granted to acknowledge Indonesia's diverse belief systems resulting from the colonization of Indonesia by various European powers. Islam was considered fundamental in the promotion of human rights in the everyday lives of the people: " the just service of Allah" ensures free national life. [17]

Integralism was also adapted to enhance the concept of royong-goyong or mutual self-help in regards to economic rights. For centuries, the common people had been subjugated under European powers. Soekarno, the leader of the Indonesian struggle, detested the era of colonial exploitation and "envisioned a future Indonesia freed from dependence on foreign capital: a community of classless and happy Marhaens (farmers), rather than the greedy (Western-style) individualists, that reflect the traditional idealized notion of royong-goyong." [18] He incorporated Article 33 in the Constitution: "The economy shall be organized as the cooperative endeavor based on the principle of family life." [19]

Different historical backgrounds and specific needs to grapple with unjust social constructions of the time explain the variance in the degree of Western influence on the constitutional identities of the Asian nations in regard to human rights. While the concept of human rights in the Japanese

Declaration of 1922 and the Indonesian Constitution of 1945 was based to a greater extent on the native culture with selective adaptations of western ideas, the Malolos Constitution of 1899 was based heavily on western ideas, complemented by a few adaptations of uniquely native Philippine concepts. It is interesting to note that today however there is an increased recognition of human rights in Japan, which can be attributed to its rapid westernization begun during the Meiji era. On the other hand, the western influence on the constitutional identities of the Philippines and Indonesia have ironically diminished as they have, after centuries of colonial rule, undergone a period of indigenous development in which their native idealized notions in regards to human rights have strongly emerged. [20]

End Notes

  1. Beer, L. (ed.), 1992. " Constitutionalism in Asia and the United States", in Constitutional Systems in the Late Twentieth Century Asia, (Seattle and London:University of Washington Press, 1992) p. 1.
  2. Wahjono, P. (ed.), 1992. " Democracy in Indonesia: Pancasila Democracy", in Constitutional Systems in Late Twentieth Century Asia, ibid.
  3. This is also known as denunciation (kyudan).
  4. Suginora, J. The Status of Discrimination in Japan: Introduction to the Buraku Problem (Kobe: The Hyogo Institute of Buraku Problem, 1982), p.11.
  5. Ibid., p. 19.
  6. Ibid., p. 59.
  7. Ibid., p. 59.
  8. Ibid., p. 59.
  9. Majul, C. A., The Political and Constitutional Ideas of the Philippine Revolution (Quezon City: University of the Philippine Press, 1996), p. 37.
  10. Ibid., p. 122.
  11. Ibid., p. 139.
  12. Ibid., p. 129.
  13. Quejada II and Obinario, 1997. "Cultural Values and Human Rights:The Philippine Perspective", in Human Rights in Asian Cultures -Continuity and Change, (Osaka: HURIGHTS OSAKA, 1997), p. 202.
  14. Wahjono, p. 463. See also Johan Ferdinand "Human Rights and Javanese Ethics," in Human Rights in Asian Cultures - Continuity and Change, op cit, which discusses the debate among the drafters of the 1945 Constitution on whether to adopt individualism or integralism as a basic political philosophy.
  15. Preamble, "The Indonesian Constitution of 1945" translated by Lev, D. S. in Constitutional Systems in Late Twentieth Century Asia, op. cit.
  16. Wahjono, p. 463.
  17. Beer, p. 17.
  18. "Indonesia: Sukurno and the Nationalist Movement" E-Conflict World Encyclopedia. 1997-98. Online Internet.
  19. Lev, p. 505.
  20. Beer, pp. 6-7.

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