Freedom slipping in Southeast Asia

From Nepal's royal coup to the flight of Cambodian opposition leaders, democracy is under assault.

Here in Asia, the last few weeks have not been good for freedom - America's top foreign-policy goal.

In Nepal, King Gyanendra dismissed the parliament and imposed a state of emergency, giving him direct control.

In Bangladesh, the capital was rocked by protests against the assassination of top leaders and the arrest of journalists. The instability forced India and other South Asian countries to cancel an upcoming regional summit in Dhaka.

And in Cambodia, moves by Hun Sen - the prime minister since 1985 - drove opposition leaders into exile.

After a spate of elections last year that highlighted progress toward full democracy in places like Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, this year has brought a depressing countertrend in other nations. From crackdowns on dissidents to outright coups, the democratic backsliding is a direct challenge to President Bush's vision of expanding freedom and democracy. It also raises a daunting question: With the ongoing Iraq war, do the US and its allies have the resources and attention to foster more than one democracy at a time?

"The very idea of exporting democracy and freedom is flawed from the start," says Rajeev Bhargava, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Unless [people] struggle for it by themselves, for themselves, freedom has no meaning."

The situation in Nepal points out the limits of outside influence. The US and Britain have quietly given millions of dollars of military aid and training to combat an eight-year Maoist insurgency. Maoists now control much of the countryside and are active in all of Nepal's 75 districts.

"We've come out very strong against the steps taken by the king," says a State Department official in Washington. "But at the same time we have to recognize that the Maoists are a complete anathema to democracy."

The official knows of no initiatives yet to change the security assistance to Nepal. But he recognizes that balancing support against criticism of antidemocratic moves is delicate and is not unique. "Our ultimate goal is strong democracies everywhere. We don't want to disregard this goal by any interim steps. But at the same time we can't take actions that make the ultimate goal more difficult to reach. It is a conundrum."

Before the coup, India had acted as an adviser to Nepal's bickering democratic parties and offered itself as a mediator to bring the Maoists back into mainstream politics. When Indian diplomats in Kathmandu learned last week that Nepal was moving troops to the capital, they asked the king if these were signs of a coup. The king said no. Then he sacked the government.

In Bangladesh, there are signs of government collusion in political violence. Long admired for its moderate Islamic culture and small-enterprise development programs, the country has lately become the focus of concern over the growing influence of the Jamaat-I Islami, a hard-line Islamist party that forms part of the current ruling coalition. Last week, a police source told the Bangladesh Daily Star that the top suspects in the fatal Jan. 27 grenade attack against opposition leader S. A. Kibria were Jamaat and ruling party members.

Some Indian observers say that turmoil in neighboring countries will force India to get involved.

"Whether it wants it or not, India is being irrevocably sucked into the internal politics of Nepal and Bangladesh," wrote C. Raja Mohan, an international affairs professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in the Indian Express.

So far, the response from India - which some in Washington would like to cultivate as a regional power responsible for ensuring stability - has been purely diplomatic. There are certainly no signs that India is contemplating anything like its 1971 intervention in what was then East Pakistan, an act that created Bangladesh; nor is India currently sending troops to Nepal, as it did in its ill-fated mission against the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka more than a decade ago.

Similarly, the US State Department used diplomatic words rather than action to condemn the Cambodian government for its treatment of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who left the country after parliament revoked his immunity from prosecution.

Two other opposition lawmakers have also lost immunity, opening the door for defamation charges by Prime Minister Hun Sen, whom Rainsy accuses of being behind a 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally that killed 16 people.

The US wields economic power over Cambodia through its extensive aid programs. A group of US Senators has called for sanctions. Analysts say the moves by Hun Sen are a test for the Bush administration's pro-democracy goals, though it's unclear how much further the US and other donors will go.

"This is another step towards a dictatorial regime," says Lao Mong Hay, a political analyst at the Center for Social Development in Phnom Penh. "Many people have pinned their hopes on America."

Hun Sen's latest power play comes on the eve of an international business meeting in Cambodia supported by the World Bank. Major lenders to Cambodia will probably wait for Rainsy to return before taking a stance. Only the US has publicly condemned Hun Sen.

Rainsy said he didn't expect any intervention by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia, given its reluctance to interfere in what it considers sovereign affairs. "We can't expect any serious support for pro-democracy movements. Just look at Burma. What has ASEAN ever done for democracy in Burma?" he asks.

Indeed, despite US economic sanctions and Western condemnation, Burma's military rulers still show no interest in giving opposition parties a voice. Military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt - seen by Western diplomats as a moderate voice in the junta - was purged last fall. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently labeled Burma an "outpost of tyranny."

Burma's Asian neighbors continue to do business there, taking the place of Western companies deterred by consumer boycotts. Although some ASEAN members have criticized the regime, the organization has also lent legitimacy to Burma at international forums.

Observers say neither Asian engagement nor Western sanctions appear to be advancing democratic aims. "We mustn't rely too much on US or UN because their contribution to Burma is limited. They can't provide a final solution," says exiled Burmese analyst Aung Naing Oo. "If we're looking for solutions, we need to look inside Burma, not outside."

And in Thailand, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra won a decisive victory in Sunday's polls that would allow his party to form Thailand's first elected one-party government. Critics say Thaksin, a former police colonel, has defanged constitutional checks on his power by stacking courts and independent agencies with loyalists. Thaksin has played down such fears. "I'm willing for everyone to participate and also willing to face scrutiny," he told reporters Sunday.

Simon Montlake contributed from Bangkok, Thailand, and Howard LaFranchi from Washington.

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