Fear and loathing as Asia-Pacific nations meet to promote tolerance

At a forum to advance democracy and equality, some leaders are more on-message than others

Julia was not speaking to Mahmoud. Yingluck looked at him with apprehension. Both Recep and Hamid have had big issues with him in the past. Julia has had a few critical things to say in the past about Hamid as well. But, outwardly at least, they hid their feelings for the sake of promoting governance, tolerance and human rights.

The Bali Democracy Forum was attended by a dozen heads of state from the Asia-Pacific region, and observers from the US and Western European states, including the UK. It was organised by the government of Indonesia, which has, it is generally agreed in the international community, made significant strides towards becoming a stable state, recovering from bloodletting in the past, with a functioning parliament and relatively independent media. Its strong economic progress and lucrative market potential was one of the reasons for the hosting of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono by Britain for last week's state visit.

It is, however, questionable how many of the leaders who turned up for the summit this week were on the same democratic journey.

Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, was noticeably resplendent in his signature green robe and karakul hat, and said all the right things. But the elections that kept him in power were mired in fraud and vote rigging startling even by the standards of the neighbourhood. It is the continuing corruption in the Kabul government which had led the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and other Western leaders to question for whose sake their soldiers are dying in the war, now in its 11th year.

Also represented at the conference was Brunei, whose ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, is one of the few absolute monarchs left in the world. However, his officials were at pains to point out, the kingdom is not an oppressive place and is open to a dialogue on reforms. Brunei does, of course, pay to base British troops – a regiment of Gurkhas – there.

But there was to be no dialogue between Ms Gillard, a co-chair of the forum, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran; she has refused to meet him because of his regime's perceived intransigence over its nuclear programme. Instead she dealt with matters in hand, concentrating, in particular, on the need to empower women further. All the leaders on the rostrum clapped, including Mr Karzai, who bears a degree of responsibility for failing to stop the hard-won women's rights achieved after the fall of the Taliban from being clawed back.

The only one who did not clap was Mr Ahmadinejad, who was staring at his desk. Perhaps he was reflecting on how female students in Iran have now been banned from 80 different degree courses, a move described by the country's Nobel Prize-winning lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, as "another initiative by the government to restrict women's access to education, stop them being active in society and return them to the homes". Mr Ahmadinejad, who is helping to prop up President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, sat at the other end of the table from the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, whose government is backing the rebels in the increasingly vicious civil war.

Mr Erdogan was scathing towards the Damascus regime in his speech. There were no plans for the two leaders to meet, Ankara officials said.

Bali had been chosen as the venue for the forum because of the horrific bombing that killed 202 people here a decade ago. Islamist terrorists targeted the island because it is predominantly Hindu in a Muslim state and is a holiday destination for Western tourists. One of the stated aims of the Indonesian constitution is to buttress the unity among its different religions and combat sectarianism.

In his turn at the rostrum, the President of Iran spoke lavishly of tolerance and democracy building a "better and more beautiful world". But he then complained: "In practice democracy has turned into the rule of the minority over the majority. That is why the pure-hearted don't get to be part of the governance."

Salvation will come with the return of the 12th Imam and the day of judgement, he said. "He knows human beings will not taste the sweetness of life unless monotheism reigns supreme in the major centres of power in the world. The arrival of the Ultimate Saviour will usher in the beginning of the truest spring for mankind." Yingluck Shinawatra, a Buddhist, a woman and Prime Minister of Thailand, looked away and shuddered delicately.