Countering government overreach in the wake of COVID-19 discussed at #AsiaLF21

Basanta Adhikari
Basanta Adhikari, founding director of Bikalpa–An Alternative, speaks at the 2021 Asia Liberty Forum.

The reality of continued international travel restrictions in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic led Atlas Network to host each of its four Regional Liberty Forums online in 2021—this time all in the same week in June. The Asia Liberty Forum (#AsiaLF21) kicked off with a critical examination of the ways in which government responses to the pandemic have disrupted both economies and private lives. With over 247 think tank and civil society professionals representing 16 countries in attendance, a rich dialogue was facilitated, despite the challenges of convening virtually. Attendees were as much a part of the excitement as winners when the Regional Liberty Award and Think Tank Shark Tank champions were announced.

Each session of the 2021 Asia Liberty Forum will remain available online, and below are some highlights of the event.

Welcome Remarks

The forum kicked off with a welcome from Atlas Network CEO Brad Lips and Basanta Adhikari of the local co-host, Nepal’s Bikalpa–An Alternative. Adhikari spoke of his hope that the forum would inspire new leaders in the liberty movement, just as he was inspired by a similar event in the past.

After opening remarks, Atlas Network’s Alex Cordell led a discussion with several leaders in the Asia liberty movement about how the pandemic and government responses have disrupted economies and lives across the region. Gideon Rozner of Institute for Public Affairs in Australia expressed his disappointment that countries around the globe have taken a China-like authoritarian response, using extreme—even military—measures to control their populations.

Kristine Alcantara of Foundation for Economic Freedom in the Philippines pointed out that many governments treated the situation like a public safety issue instead of a public health issue, leading them to treat their own citizens like enemy actors.

Lakshmi Sampath Goyal of India’s Centre for Civil Society talked about the gradual loss of freedom as the government used the pandemic excuse to take more and more power, as well as the increasing centralized planning that followed.

Big Ideas: Improving Governance for More Freedom and Prosperity

Led by Atlas Network’s Dr. Tom G. Palmer, the Big Ideas session of the 2021 Asia Liberty Forum focused on what steps governments in Asia could take to strengthen the rule of law and create freer, more prosperous societies. Dr. Palmer was joined by Deependra Chaulagain of Samriddhi Prosperity Foundation in Nepal, Ali Salman of PRIME Institute in Pakistan, and Dharmarajan Dhanuraj from Centre for Public Policy Research in India to discuss how governance in Asia can be improved and what Atlas Network partners can do to drive that change.

The panelists agreed that the internet represents an excellent opportunity to streamline and improve access to government services. This improvement can be taken even further when governments allow sectors to be privatized that they previously had a monopoly over, like banking and telecommunications.

Interview with Dr. Gurcharan Das

During the finale of the first day of the #AsiaLF21, Atlas Network’s Tarun Vats interviewed Gurcharan Das, Indian author and public intellectual, on how governments and institutions should respond to crises.

Atlas Network’s Tarun Vats interviewed Gurcharan Das during the finale of day one of #AsiaLF21.

Das said that while free markets do create inequality, it is not the kind of inequality we should worry about fixing. Healthy societies should focus on creating opportunities for the poor to lift themselves out of poverty, rather than imposing top-down plans to create equality in results.

He went on to talk about the roots of classical liberalism in traditional Indian thought, the history of decentralization in India, and Indian kings who operated under the rule of law. This past, he argued, naturally led India to become a democracy after the end of colonialism.

Regional Liberty Award

After the interview with Das, Atlas Network’s Brad Lips announced India’s Centre for Civil Society (CCS) as the winner of the 2021 Asia Liberty Award and its $7,000 prize.

Lakshmi Sampath Goyal accepts the 2021 Asia Liberty Award on behalf of India’s Centre for Civil Society.

Through their “Making a Living on the Street” project, CCS has worked to implement state-level reforms in accordance with the 2014 passage of the Street Vendors Act at the national level. They have focused on educating both the public and government actors and using litigation to protect and empower India’s many street vendors. They have succeeded in improving the perception of vendors among the public and implementing state laws that reflect the reforms of the Street Vendors Act.

Centre for Civil Society competed against two other finalists for the top prize. The first runner-up was Foundation for Economic Freedom in the Philippines for their “Liberalizing Tree Plantation Policies” project, which has worked to advance deregulation as a solution to the Philippines’ vanishing tree cover and the resulting disruption to the logging industry. Vietnam’s Market Solutions Research Center for Social and Economic Issues was also a runner-up for their work to comprehensively audit Vietnam’s market economy to identify problem points and create solutions. Both runners-up received $1,500.

Asia Think Tank Shark Tank

At the close of the 2021 Asia Liberty Forum, Atlas Network’s Casey Pifer announced Sathya Karunarathne of Advocata Institute as the winner of the 2021 Asia Think Tank Shark Tank competition. Karunarathne pitched her organization’s “Economic Freedom for Her” campaign, which seeks to advance women’s economic and personal rights in Sri Lanka. The project has already seen big wins, gaining the attention of Sri Lanka’s Minister of Justice and successfully driving a tax reduction on menstrual products.

Sathya Karunarathne, winner of the 2021 Asia Think Tank Shark Tank competition.

Karunarathne competed against two other pitches. The first was from Nur Zulaika Azmi of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs in Malaysia for her “Monitoring Power” project to identify, track, and fight corruption within Malaysian statutory bodies. Karunarathne was also challenged by Andree Surianta of the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies for his “Partnering to Push the Pandemic 2.0” campaign to encourage the collaboration of the private sector in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

Closing Remarks

For the closing session, Casey Pifer was joined by Charu Chadha of Media 9 Pvt Ltd. in Nepal, Tricia Yeoh of Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs in Malaysia, and Bhuvana Anand of Trayas Foundation in India to discuss women’s rights in Asia. They agreed that while progress has been made along this front, there is still much to be done. Women in many parts of Asia still struggle to own and operate their own businesses, inherit property, or exercise personal agency. Anand pointed out that around the world, women have only about three-quarters of the legal rights of men.

Increasing women’s access to education and raising their literacy rate will help women gain a better understanding of their rights, said Chadha. The panelists concurred that recognizing and closing the gap between urban and rural women is essential. Highly educated women have been able to break many barriers, but the same is not yet true for less advantaged women.

Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner 2021 will be held in Miami, December 13–14, 2021. Learn more here.