Turmoil in Both Markets And Politics: Is There a Link?

Leadership struggles complicate slumping economies of a region, weakening democracy.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As Asia's economies crumble, the region's authoritarian leaders are on the march again.

In Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, police yesterday used Kalashnikov rifles to fire on demonstrators, critically injuring at least one student in the fourth day of a crackdown against largely peaceful political protests.

Burma's military rulers have detained hundreds of opposition leaders over the past several days, at times dragging elderly politicians out of their homes in the middle of night to "invite" them for discussions.

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In Malaysia, long known for stable, relatively democratic politics, the prime minister on Sept. 2 fired his protg for "moral" reasons and put himself in charge of internal security and financial affairs.

These Southeast Asian countries have their own particular circumstances, making generalizations risky, but it appears that Asia's economic troubles are producing unexpected political repercussions: the weakening of movements toward democracy.

The events of early September highlight a reversal of political logic that the US and other democratic countries used to cheer. During the 1980s and early 1990s, it seemed inevitable that as governments liberalized their markets and opened their economies, their people would begin to demand more political choices as well. The days of Asian despots - including the communist parties of China and Vietnam - seemed numbered.

Suddenly, Chinese and Vietnamese leaders look like geniuses for shielding their economies, at least in part, from the regional recession. And in some countries leaders are apparently deciding that if the free market doesn't work, then there's no need to make politics any freer.

"The economic disintegration of the region has had the effect of forcing attention inward," says Donald Emmerson, a Southeast Asian politics expert at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "In a sense these people feel unmoored, in that the world they had hooked themselves to has disappointed them."

Many of the countries in the region remain mindful of their obligations to the global economy and their foreign investors, he cautions, but adds that economic frustrations are producing a "particular interest in stability."

"With the economic crisis," adds Sheldon Simon, an Asian security specialist at Arizona State University in Tempe, "there are excuses for government which already have authoritarian strains to increase them."

At the same time, countries well on the road to a democratic system, such as South Korea and Thailand, seemed to have maintained their momentum. In those countries, economic decline has produced political change that has helped efforts toward reform.

A change has also taken place in Indonesia, where this May President Suharto, who had ruled for 32 years, stepped down amid protests and waning support from military and other allies. But the upheaval in Indonesia is not yet over, and experts say it is too soon to tell what sort of political system will emerge.

Cambodia and Burma have not been anywhere near as linked with the global economy as Malaysia, but both countries have been seeking foreign investment and trade - projects that are drying up fast in the recession.

Perhaps the most critical situation is unfolding in Cambodia, where opposition leaders are in sharp confrontation with Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose Cambodian People's Party won the July 26 elections. International observers have said the contest was free and fair, but the losing parties say the voting was marred.

Their protests are drawing huge public support in a country that has been torn for decades by civil war, a lingering insurgency, and political infighting. The UN has been trying to establish democracy in Cambodia for more than five years, with little to show for it.

Hun Sen seems to be losing patience, threatening to arrest opposition leader Sam Rainsy and then changing his mind after diplomats interceded. Security forces have increasingly used violence against supporters of Mr. Rainsy and Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Cambodians say several protesters, including a Buddhist monk, have been killed, although these deaths are unconfirmed.

Hun Sen yesterday banned future protests, even as Prince Ranariddh was announcing an intention to lead a weekend rally.

Officials of Burma's National League for Democracy, a political party that won elections in 1990 but has not been allowed to take power, say more than 300 opposition leaders have been detained since last weekend.

The military leaders who run Burma have said that the people were invited for discussions and were staying at "guesthouses," but similar explanations have been followed before by accounts of detention and intimidation.

The US seems particularly concerned about this crisis, with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright having warned in July of a possible "explosion" in Burma that could destabilize the region.

This week State Department spokesman James Rubin criticized the regime's tactics. "They were rounding up people in their 70s and 80s at 3 a.m. The government there is not approaching this problem in anything resembling a constructive way."

The NLD, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has said that this month it will try to convene parliament, a provocative act that analysts said might be motivated by frustration within the NLD over Ms. Suu Kyi's long struggle. Her activities over the past decade have been severely restricted, and she has so far not been able to convince the generals to agree to a dialogue.

Harold Crouch, an analyst of Indonesian and Malaysian politics at the Australian National University in Canberra, says recent events in Southeast Asia are not part of a simultaneous reversion to authoritarianism. But he agrees that Malaysia, burned by an economic collapse that is part of the regional downturn, is moving in an "anti-market direction."

Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad "has a strong dictatorial aspect to his character" - a feature that seems especially prominent now. He fired Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim amid allegations of sexual misbehavior and abuses of power. Long associated with free-market policies and political liberalization, Mr. Anwar denies the charges and has mounted a reformation movement.

Mahathir also put controls on the convertibility of the national currency, a step designed to protect Malaysia from speculators that the prime minister has blamed for economic troubles.

In Southeast Asia generally, concludes Professor Simon of Arizona State, "there may be a disillusionment with everything connected with the market economy.... If a market economy fails on you, then by extension democracy is wrong and fails as well."

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