- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2000

Aseries of fascinating recent displays of democracy entrenching itself in East Asia imply an important

critique of, and profound lessons for, U.S. foreign policy, making that question a central one. Yet with the notable exception of Taiwan's recent presidential election, these political developments have gone largely unreported in the American press and remain unknown to perhaps 99.9 percent of the American public.

Nonetheless, without any hectoring, without Congress imposing sanctions, making demands or threatening to apply U.S. law abroad (or for that matter, even noticing), which have become an unfortunate hallmark of often well-intentioned but imperious American behavior, recent political events suggest that Asians are reaching Winston Churchill's conclusion: "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others."

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the March election victory of opposition leader Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan, the first peaceful transition of power in 5,000 years of Chinese history.

But that landmark event sent shivers down the spines of the politburo in Beijing. Perhaps no less than fears of an independent Taiwan, the unseating of the ruling KMT in Taiwan which was structured exactly like the Chinese Communist Party and maintained similar political control for half a century was a disturbing precedent for Beijing's leadership, as well as an intriguing example to 1.2 billion Chinese. Yet Taiwan's election was only the most dramatic of a host of developments reshaping East Asia's political landscape. Consider just a sampling of recent events:

• In Thailand, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sanan Kachornprasart, a ruling party political kingpin, resigned his posts in late March after a government anti-corruption commission found cause to suspect illicit money flows and Thai courts indicted him.

• In the Philippines, a populist movement with elite support is mounting a campaign to force President Jose Estrada, a former pop movie idol, to resign amid allegations of widespread corruption, incompetence and embarrassing buffoonery. Mr. Estrada's chief of staff was fired after he said that he was the only one sober in the room as policy decisions were made in late night partying sessions.

• In Indonesia, a fledgling democracy is gradually reinventing an entire political culture as the often-confusing behavior of President Abdhurramin Wahid has won initial showdowns with the military, outmaneuvered the political opposition and his own Cabinet and may be laying the basis for managing local rebellions in gas-rich Aceh and other provinces threatening secession.

These are hardly isolated events. Rather they are emblematic of the new post-economic crisis political dynamics in Southeast Asia. In Thailand, for example, where vote-buying and other forms of abuse have been endemic, Mr. Sanan's resignation was but one of a series of events underscoring a deepening of rule of law. The Sanan affair was unveiled by the Counter-Corruption Commission, itself a product of the new Thai constitution. At the same time, more than one-third of the candidates who won seats in Thai Senate elections in March, 78 in all, were disqualified after investigations into vote-rigging. And not least, a mid-March decision by a Thai court declaring Thai Petrochemical Industry, the country's biggest debtor, insolvent, was a big boost to the nation's fledgling bankruptcy laws and the court created to resolve the legacy of the Asian financial crisis.

In the Philippines, a latter-day version of the "people power" uprising that led to Ferdinand Marcos' downfall in 1986 has begun, led by businessmen and professionals and aimed at forcing President Estrada (known as "Erap") to radically reform his ways (unlikely) or resign. Mr. Estrada's popularity, in the stratosphere after his 1998 election, has plummeted in recent opinion polls. Though elected as a populist champion of the poor, Mr. Estrada has brought back many of the cronies associated with Marcos, such as Eduardo "Danding" Cojuanco. Foreign investors have been bailing out, and international aid agencies have threatened to withhold funds, amid widespread corruption charges, stalled financial reforms, a tumbling stock market and renewed Muslim insurgency. This revenge of civil society seeks to restore the momentum of Mr. Estrada's predecessor, Fidel Ramos, an Eisenhower-like figure who began to revamp and open the Filipino economy along free-market lines.

Then there is Indonesia, the world's fourth largest nation with a population of 209 million and largest Islamic nation. In barely six months in office, President Wahid has done reasonably well at the arduous job of building a democracy from nothing despite ill-advised U.S. impatience. He has faced down the former army chief of staff, Gen. Wiranto, and gotten his resignation, reduced the political role of the military, particularly of the army, outflanked the political opposition, and set in motion processes to redress past abuses. And displeased with his Cabinet's economic management that has held up a $400 million loan from the International Monetary Fund, he lashed out at them and created a shadow team of economic advisers.

More recently, his impressive attorney general, Marzuki Dausman, had investigators go to the home of former strong man Suharto to pursue an inquiry into his gains. Mr. Marzuki, is trying to overhaul the entire legal system, starting with a complete housecleaning of his office. He wants to create U.S.-style independent prosecutors to investigate key cases such as Suharto's and human rights abuses by the Indonesian military in East Timor and Aceh.

Jakarta has been criticized for not pursuing military abuses of the Suharto regime, particularly in East Timor and Aceh, more vigorously. But Mr. Wahid and Mr. Muzarki know that they are on a tightrope: Their legitimacy depends on demonstrating accountability for past abuses, but too much retribution could trigger a military backlash. Mr. Muzarki has spoken of "pushing for restorative justice," not retributive justice i.e., expect a South African-type Truth Commission rather than blanket Bosnia-type war-crimes tribunals.

But U.S. demands for full-blown tribunals continue to hamper Washington's ability to work with Jakarta. This is precisely the problem all these developments highlight: The United States demands that countries like Indonesia make the changes we want and how we want, rather than allowing them to judge what their societies can bear and act in their own rhythm.

U.S. foreign policy needs to learn to take "Yes" for an answer. Recent events underscore broad patterns in Asia over the past 15 years. As economic dynamism has produced middle classes, demand for political accountability has followed, with the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and now Indonesia becoming democratic and deepening that process. It is almost as if we don't believe in our own values, which are triumphing.

Whether the issue is labor and environmental laws or political accountability for abuses, nations move at their own pace. Yet a dangerously dysfunctional U.S. foreign policy is buffeted by competing single-issue interest groups, a legacy-desperate president and public inattention, resulting in policies trying to force the issue that often appear heavy-handed, arrogant and counterproductive.

Perhaps the most important lesson of Asian developments that have occurred in Confucian, Islamic and secular cultures alike (so much for the cultural relativism, "Asian values" argument) may apply to China. So long as China's reforms are moving forward, as it becomes more prosperous, why is it thought that Beijing's Leninist leaders will ultimately be immune from these trends as the Chinese middle class swells. Can the United States have the confidence of its convictions and put down its policy sledgehammer?

Robert A. Manning, a former State Department policy adviser, is senior fellow and director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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