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Date: Tue, 16 Dec 1997 05:40:51 -0500
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Across Asia, Stirrings of Democracy; Stirrings Cast Doubt on Asians' Fabled Indifference to Democracy

By Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post,
Tuesday, December 16, 1997; Page A01

KUALA LUMPUR, MalaysiaIn Taiwan last month, the ruling Nationalist Party suffered its biggest defeat ever in local elections, presaging a possible loss of power in next year's national elections for a new parliament. Meanwhile in South Korea, opinion polls show a veteran pro-democracy campaigner and longtime political outsider has his first real shot at power in elections this week.

In the Philippines, a revived "people power" movement and vociferous media criticism forced President Fidel Ramos to abandon thoughts of running for another term, while in Thailand, popular protests and media pressure forced an unpopular prime minister, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, to relinquish his office last month and retire to the political sidelines.

Even in tightly controlled Indonesia -- where general elections are still derisively called "elections of generals" -- there are discernible stirrings of discontent and change. President Suharto is set to be anointed next year to a seventh consecutive five-year term, but already there is open talk about the "post-Suharto era."

The question now, say Indonesian analysts and journalists, and foreign diplomats there, is not whether the vast archipelago will democratize, but at what pace and in what manner.

For most of the past three decades, East Asia has been known largely as a region of miraculous economic growth but stilted political development, with most countries led by military regimes, autocratic strongmen, or all-powerful ruling parties that kept power through money, patronage and a measured amount of repression. Yet recent events are converging to challenge some of the old certainties, upending some long-held political orthodoxies.

Just as the regionwide economic slowdown has called into question the Asian "miracle," so too have recent democratic stirrings tested the much-repeated axiom that Asians, by and large, care little about democracy and favor authoritarian government.

A few regional leaders -- Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa in Hong Kong and China's Communist leaders -- still advocate the idea of "Asian values," a system that prizes stability and consensus while eschewing Western-style democracy with its emphasis on political conflict.

But a more complex reality is emerging, with more and more Asians now choosing their own leaders, throwing out old ones, forming labor unions and advocacy groups outside of government control and publicly clamoring for more democratic rights. Just as democracy swept through Latin America and the former Communist-run states of Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War, East Asia, too, is in the midst of what many here are calling a slow but steady move toward more pluralism and openness.

"The trend is towards greater democratization," said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political scientist with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in Jakarta. "There is increasing societal pressure in every country. This relates to the fact that people are getting more education. It's the rise of the middle class. And it's also a result in the increased globalization of communication and travel. The wave of democratization since the end of the Cold War seems to be catching everybody."

"Democracy is on the march in East Asia," said Douglas Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center in Washington. "But the problem is, it's hard to notice because all we tend to listen to are the booming voices of the Mahathirs" -- a reference to Malaysia's outspoken leader. Paal called democratization "an inevitability in the region" that will only be reinforced as more countries are forced to liberalize and open their economies as a condition for international aid.

One sign of the trend can be seen in the heavy electoral calendar of the next 12 months. South Koreans go to the polls Thursday for their third free presidential election since 1987. After voting in local elections in November, Taiwanese -- who emerged from martial law only in 1986 -- will vote next year for a new national parliament.

Filipinos will elect a new president in May, further consolidating the democracy restored by the 1986 "people power" revolt that tossed out dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos. Thailand is likely to hold its first elections under a new reformist constitution aimed at cleaning up "money politics" and reducing the role of patronage in the country's ailing system.

Hong Kong will elect its first legislature under Chinese rule, which, despite complaints about the fairness of the rules and the size of the voting franchise, will make the territory the most democratic part of China.

With so many Asian countries now voting for leaders -- and in places as diverse as Taiwan, with its Confucian tradition, and the Philippines, a former colony of the United States and Spain -- it seems difficult to argue anymore that Asians in general don't care about democracy.

"It's nonsense," Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui said in an interview, commenting on the "Asian values" concept and speaking as the first leader ever elected democratically by Chinese. "Asian people are human beings. . . . Democracy is something everybody would like to have. Everybody would like more freedom."

Some Asian countries have a long tradition of democracy and pluralistic elections -- Japan, which became a Western-style liberal democracy after World War II, the Philippines, where democracy was aborted by the Marcos dictatorship, and, India, the world's most populous democratic nation.

But Asia's autocrats have been able to brush aside those three countries as unsuitable role models for the rest of the region because of their unique circumstances -- Japan's wartime defeat and occupation, for instance, and the Philippines' history as a U.S. colony. And India, with its endemic poverty and violence, often still is seen as a negative example showing that democracy does not guarantee economic development and stability.

Nevertheless, academics, journalists, diplomats and others point to a number of trends that they say shows democracy is becoming more entrenched. They are:

The declining role of the armed forces in East Asia. This trend has been most remarkable in South Korea, but also in Thailand, Taiwan and the Philippines -- countries where the armed forces once exercised broad control but where the chance of direct military intervention in politics, meaning a coup, now seems remote.

In Indonesia, the military still exercises wide influence through its "dual function" role allowing officers to also hold government jobs. But analysts in Jakarta say they see a trend toward a more professional, less politicized, military. "I know personally some high-ranking officers in the armed forces, and they are quite democratic people," said one academic at a leading think tank in Jakarta. "They also want democratic reform. . . . The old generation, the 1945 generation, saw their legitimacy come from the historic creation of Indonesia, and they feel they have a moral obligation to take part in politics. The new generation is concerned with their social acceptability. . . . I know some young officers are very idealistic."

The growth of nongovernmental organizations. Indonesia is believed to have 9,000 to 10,000 advocacy organizations, ranging from women's groups and religious groups to human rights forums, legal aid societies and labor unions, which are not officially recognized. The trend is similar, if less pronounced, across much of East and Southeast Asia. This flowering of nongovernmental activity is almost all small-scale and grass-roots, operating at the level of a single province or town, or even a single factory. But these groups have begun to exert influence on government policies concerning specific issues.

The rise of information technology and the aggressiveness of the media. Some governments still try to control local media by varying degrees, but the Internet, satellite television, and regional publications that circulate freely across borders give Asians greater access to uncensored information about global democratic trends than at any time in history, even in relatively closed societies such as Vietnam, where foreign magazines and newspapers are available on street corners. In Thailand, the local Bangkok-based press was the main force pushing for democratic change and against Chavalit's government, while the vociferous attacks of newspaper columnists and editorials in Manila forced Ramos to reconsider his coy hints about changing the constitution to seek a new term.

The emergence of a new leadership generation. Where Malaysia's 71-year-old Mahathir speaks of "Asian values," his heir apparent, deputy prime minister and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim, 50, talks of the need for greater democracy. Anwar, who learned his politics as a 1970s street activist jailed for protesting against an earlier, repressive Malaysian government, is widely seen as a prototype of the "new breed" Asian leader -- more cosmopolitan and less concerned than older leaders about their nations' survivability and political stability.

"There's a whole crowd of these guys in a lot of countries," said Paal, of the Asia Pacific Policy Center. "They're not in power yet, but they're accumulating power. The generational change to me is the most important thing."

Many regional analysts and academics agreed that Asia's economic downturn -- which has seen local currencies lose about a third of their value since the summer and forced several countries to seek bailouts from the International Monetary Fund -- may in the short term pose a challenge to the democratization trend. The pain of higher unemployment, high interest rates and slower growth, all part of the IMF's prescription for ailing economies, may produce a populist electoral backlash against democratic governments and a hankering for the older-style authoritarian leader who provided the "iron rice bowl" of prosperity for the previous generation.

But for the long term, the changes in the economic systems forced by the IMF remedies -- more transparency in decision-making, opening of markets, less corruption and cronyism -- are likely to accelerate the move to pluralism in politics, analysts said.

There are, of course, a few exceptions and holdouts to the democratizing trend. Burma (renamed Myanmar by its rulers) is still run by a military junta that refuses to recognize the National League for Democracy as the party that won national elections in 1990. The United States and most Western European countries consider the Burmese regime one of the world's most repressive. But last July, the regional group called ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, admitted Burma as a member, hoping, among other reasons, that engaging the junta in the international organization might liberalize its behavior.

Communist-run Vietnam also seems to be lagging behind the region's democratization trend. But analysts like Paal and diplomats in Hanoi said even in that country there is a measurable amount of pent-up frustration among younger Vietnamese who are looking for a way to change to a more open system. In one possible sign of nascent change, candidates not affiliated with the Communist Party won seats for the first time in Vietnam's most recent elections for a new national assembly. Among them was a former officer in the old South Vietnamese army.

Cambodia was thought to have ushered in a new democratic government after U.N.-brokered elections. For a while, newspapers flourished, human rights groups opened offices and political parties sprang up.

But in early July, after more than a year of slowly encroaching on Cambodia's newfound freedoms, the powerful second prime minister, Hun Sen, staged a bloody coup, ousted his coalition partner and rival Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the first prime minister, and seized control of the country. Hun Sen's coup prompted international condemnation, a cutoff of badly needed U.S. aid and demands from Cambodia's neighbors that the country's fragile democracy be restored.

Response to the Cambodian coup was notable. In the past, regional leaders clung to the notion of noninterference in each other's internal affairs.

The ASEAN regional meeting last July marked a turning point. The Asian leaders lined up to criticize Hun Sen's coup and demand free elections. Various analysts said ASEAN showed a new maturity in handling the crisis, recognizing that now issues of democracy and human rights cannot be ignored.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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