THE people of Asia are scratching their heads to figure out just what George Bush means by a ``new world order.'' To them, the old order is still pretty much intact. The thaw in the cold war has yet to reach Asia, where conservative peasants have tolerated even the most ruthless rulers, communist or not, for decades.
From afar, Asians saw how Latin American dictators and East European communists fell from power in the 1980s. In Asia, the 1986 overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines sparked moves toward democracy in Thailand, Pakistan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Student activists talk of weeping as they listened to shortwave radio as Marcos was ousted by ``people's power.'' Those tears of joy turned to woe as students were gunned down in Burma in 1988, China in 1989, and lately in Thailand.
Those with the bullets have cut down most advances toward the power of the ballot. Many leaders now grant just enough political pluralism to satisfy an emerging middle class, university youth, and military dissenters. In the name of modernizing, they delay the luxury of democracy.
Recent ``emerging democracies'' - Nepal, Bangladesh, and Mongolia - face possible reversals unless voting becomes rooted over generations. Even Britain finds it difficult to install democracy in its Chinese colony of Hong Kong.
In supposedly Westernized Japan, one party has been in power for 45 years. The three strongest politicians are all related by marriage. That means the next leader of the world's largest creditor nation could be decided over sushi. In about half of Asia, political opponents still tend to be locked up. Politics revolves around guessing who is heir apparent and maneuvering to join or undo him.
Asian leaders have long employed a combination of four ``isms'' to keep themselves in power: nepotism, paternalism, communism, or militarism. These hinder Asia from mastering the art of peaceful leadership transfers.
Old monarchies hold some or all the power in about half-a-dozen nations, including Thailand, Nepal, and Japan. Such lordly rule provides stability, but at the cost of perpetuating a belief that bloodlines determine merit.
Other power-holders hide behind a veneer of a restricted democracy. Unofficial shadow rulers pull the strings in China, Japan, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Singapore.
A number of nations face leadership changes in the 1990s. Vietnam's Communist Party holds a pivotal congress in a few months to determine if an Old Guard weaned on war and Joseph Stalin will give way to a younger generation. That will influence Hanoi's client regime in Cambodia.
Japan gets a new prime minister by October and may choose to retire its postwar leaders. The Philippines and South Korea will elect new presidents in 1992. And India will once again decide whether the party that led it to independence still deserves to rule.
Meanwhile, a fragile coalition in China could come undone when Deng Xiaoping dies. Two leaders of coups in the 1960s, Suharto of Indonesia and Ne Win of Burma, are trying to place friends and family in power, knowing they themselves might leave the scene soon.
Creating a dynasty is also near completion in North Korea. Longtime ruler Kim Il Sung will soon hand over formal power to his son, Kim Jong Il, who is so little respected that the Korean Peninsula could be rocked by dangerous instability.
No wonder President Bush has put off any trips to Asia, where the old ways still tend to be the only ways.
Due to editing errors in the March 12 issue, an article referred to the 1986 bombing attempt of an El Al flight as a bombing. `The World From Asia' essay included Thailand in a list of countries in which students had been shot. Thai protesters were arrested in recent demonstrations.