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ROBERT A. MANNING
Special to The Japan Times KUALA LUMPUR A series 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 elections, these political developments have gone largely unreported in the U.S.

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 presidential 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 politicians 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, if 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 government posts in late March after a government anticorruption commission found cause to suspect illicit money flows and the 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. Estrada’s chief of staff was fired after he said that he was the only sober person in the room during late-night sessions in which policy decisions were made.

* 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 political dynamics in Southeast Asia. In Thailand, for example, where vote-buying and other forms of abuse have been endemic, Sanan’s resignation was but one of a host of events underscoring a deepening of rule of law.

In Indonesia, the world’s fourth-largest country and largest Islamic nation, Wahid, has actually done reasonably well at the arduous job of building a democracy from nothing, despite ill-advised U.S. impatience. He has faced down 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 IMF loan, Wahid lashed out at them and created a shadow team of economic advisers.

More recently, his impressive attorney general, Marzuki Darusman, sent investigators to the home of former President Suharto to pursue inquiries into his ill-gotten gains. Marzuki is trying to overhaul the 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 and human-rights abuses by the Indonesian military in East Timor and Aceh.

Jakarta has been criticized for not vigorously pursuing military abuses during the Suharto regime, particularly in East Timor and Aceh. But Wahid and Marzuki 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. Marzuki has spoken of pushing for restorative justice, not retributive justice: In other words, expect a South African-type truth commission rather than war-crimes tribunals.

U.S. demands for full-blown war-crimes tribunals hamper Washington’s ability to work with Jakarta. This is precisely the problem all these developments highlight: The U.S. demands that countries like Indonesia make the changes it wants, rather than allowing them to judge what their societies can bear and act according to their own rhythms.

U.S. foreign policy makers need 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, demands for political accountability have followed, with the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and now Indonesia becoming democratic and deepening that process. It seems we don’t believe in our own values even as they triumph.

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. This results in policies that appear heavy-handed and counterproductive.

Perhaps the most important lesson of Asian developments that have occurred in Confucian, Islamic and secular cultures alike (so much for cultural relativism and “Asian Values”) may apply to China. As China’s reforms move forward and the country becomes more prosperous, why is it thought that Beijing’s Leninist leaders will be immune from these trends as China’s middle class swells? Can the U.S. have the confidence of its convictions and put down its policy sledgehammer?

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