In Southeast Asia, Regal Splendor Fades ... Slowly

LIKE old generals, monarchies and aristocracy in Southeast Asia don't die. They just fade away - and very slowly - despite a modern mix of dictators, republicans, and communists among the region's 10 nations.

In recent weeks, Southeast Asia has been reminded of its historic penchant for royalty, with many people still believing that power resides more in high persons than in institutions.

On March 7, for instance, Indonesia witnessed a young man, wearing a diamond-studded black velvet jacket, assume the throne of one of the few remaining sultanates in the country, located in the central island of Java.

More than 1 million followers celebrated the investiture, a remnant of a 15th century Javanese empire. After his coronation, Prince Mangkubumi rode in a royal carriage drawn by eight white horses. Unlike his father, who died last year, the new sultan of Jogyakarta had his powers curtailed by the modern government in Jakarta.

In Malaysia, a new king was chosen on March 2 by his fellow sultans. Azlan Muhibuddin Shah will officially become king on April 26, and serve for five years. Unlike previous kings, he is expected to provoke a political conflict with the elected prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, under the country's constitutional monarchy.

Cambodia, ruled by King Norodom Sihanouk until the mid-1950s, may see a settlement of its long conflict this year with Sihanouk coming back to the capital, but perhaps only as a figurehead.

``You can't suppress 2,400 years of Cambodian history,'' says Sihanouk's son, Prince Norordom Ranaridh. ``Maybe a monarchy is the best solution. But Cambodia is too complicated now.''

In the Philippines, President Corazon Aquino battles daily to roll back the legacy of a pseudo-monarchist style that Ferdinand Marcos left behind after two decades of rule. Many Filipinos grew accustomed to Mr. Marcos's imperious leadership, which included dispensing favors in grand displays of power, and having his image carved into a huge rock outcropping and impressed on gold watches for courtiers. After helping to restore democracy three years ago, Mrs. Aquino has often been expected by many here to wield the same power, even as she tries to dissipate it.

In Brunei, Sultan Sir Hassanal Bokiah is a hereditary ruler. In the former kingdom of Laos, which has been communist-run for more than a decade, a member of the ex-royal family was president until 1986. Prince Souphanouvong was a founding member of Laos's Communist Party.

The region's strongest monarchy is in Thailand, where a much respected king is expected to retire soon. The crown prince, however, is not widely considered as well suited to the throne, and some analysts expect the king's daughter to be chosen as the next monarch.

Asians have traditionally preferred strong authority, viewing kingship as a way to prevent anarchy, and royalty as keepers of the faith. Even under new systems of government, power is often highly paternalistic.

``What's the use of a royal throne if it is useless to the people?'' asked Java's Prince Mangkubumi. ``Therefore this investiture is the right moment to strengthen my aim that my throne is for the people's social welfare and culture.''

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