POLITICAL bosses and generals are warily watching nascent democratic sentiments in Southeast Asia. Regional governments are dominated by autocrats, the military, and feudal landlords, but now winds of change from Eastern Europe and the demands of an increasingly global economy are rustling these staid Asia societies. Leading Indonesian intellectuals have launched a Democracy Forum to prod President Suharto and the powerful military toward reform. Despite recent moves toward democracy and a new political openness, continued strictures on the press and intellectuals as well as concerns over economic inequality prompted the group to go public with its dissent.
"We cannot remain in isolation," says Mulya Lubis, a lawyer active in the Democracy Forum. "The crumbling of Eastern Europe has been seen by many people.
"We also cannot resist all this economic globalization," he continued in a telephone interview from Jakarta. "It's not possible for our leaders to close their eyes to what is happening."
Yet, Southeast Asia's democratic reformers face an uphill struggle to budge the armed forces and political strongmen. Militaries across the region assert the right to throw out civilian governments they consider uppity or undesirable.
Only in Singapore and Malaysia does the military not play a dominant role, although the two countries remain in the hands of leaders with dictatorial tendencies.
In Indonesia, the unveiling of Democracy Forum has underscored the raging debate over political freedom in the vast island nation.
For months, the armed forces have been split over President Suharto's plans to seek another term in 1993. A former general, Suharto has dominated this country of 190 million people since violently quashing an insurrection in the mid-1960s. After watching the overthrow of autocrats in Eastern Europe in 1989, the Indonesian government tried to defuse the potential of a similar uprising by allowing political openness.
But last fall the authorities, nervous about the prospect of fundamentalism in this predominantly Islamic but secular nation, closed down a magazine for publishing a poll that offended Muslims. That action, as well as recent bans on plays critical of the government and restrictions on a prominent poet, prompted 45 intellectuals to risk government retribution and openly launch the pro-democracy group.
Headed by the prominent Muslim scholar Abdurrahman Wahid, the forum is also playing on growing resentment against the economic hold of powerful minority Chinese businessman, many with links to Suharto and his family.
"We need economic democracy," says Mr. Lubis, who explains the group is battling sectarianism in the country. "The point is not just the redistribution of income but also giving people equal opportunity and an equal share."
In Thailand, too, reformers are up against a society that has long acquiesced to dominance by the socially elite military. The military putsch against the Chatichai government was the seventeenth in modern history, most of them triggered by personal pique among bickering Army brass.
Increasingly vocal intellectuals worry that the promised return to democracy will not occur, after a February coup overthrew the elected prime minister, Chatichai Choonhavan.
Yet, critics say change is stymied not just by the generals' iron grip but also by a common assumption that the happy-go-lucky Thais cannot handle democracy.
"There is an old saying that the people get the government they deserve," says caretaker Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, a former diplomat and businessman who says he will step down if elections are not held.
"The Thai people just have to wake up if we want to have democratic rule," he says. "It has to be something we have to earn and fight for."
Already, however, many political observers believe that Gen. Suchinda Krapayoon, who as Army chief masterminded the coup, is maneuvering into position to take over as prime minister. In the wings is another hopeful, former Army commander Chaovalit Yongchaiyut.
Although the coup sidetracked dissent by avoiding mass arrests and censorship, and by inducting a respected interim civilian administration, unhappiness is emerging on university campuses. Recently, 40 professors and activists demanded a release of students arrested under martial law. The Army turned them down.
The stalling of elections past next year's deadline set by the military could trigger unrest among students and labor unionists, says Suchit Bunbonkarn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.
"There would be upheaval and an uprising, definitely," says the Thai analyst. "We have a problem with government accountability and responsibility. But that doesn't mean we should drop democracy. We can't wait until everything is ready for democracy."
In the Philippines, as a growing number of volunteer and grass-roots organizations prepare for next year's national elections, politicians are scrambling to reclaim the "people power" legacy of President Corazon Aquino. Mrs. Aquino led a popular uprising that drove dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power in 1986.
In the insurgency-torn island of Mindanao, some Catholic groups are organizing people at the village level to loosen feudal controls through land reform and to oppose human rights abuses by the military and private armies, says Bishop Francisco Claver, a prominent church scholar and activist.
"The idea of people power is now accepted in the Philippines. The problem is how to make it work," Bishop Claver says. "Bringing people power about is not that easy, but quiet work by [non-governmental organizations] is making headway."