Ballot-Wise in Southeast Asia

Now that President Bush has discovered a post-9/11 need to shore up democracy in unstable nations, he might turn more of his attention to a corner of the world that has a toehold on democracy but a bootful of Muslim terrorists - as well as power-hungry military officers.

Southeast Asia, which stretches from Burma to the Philippines, was once full of democratic promise after the 1986 revolt that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos in Manila.

That "people power" revolution helped inspire a 1988 revolt against Burma's military dictatorship, forcing a 1991 election that was won by democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. It also helped Thailand push its coup-happy military further back into the barracks, and helped the United Nations and United States get Vietnam's troops out of Cambodia so that nation could hold an election in 1993.

And in the region's largest nation, Indonesia, another people-power revolution in 1998 ended the 32-year reign of former General Suharto.

But recent events, as well as bombings linked to the Al Qaeda terror network, reveal that Southeast Asia still needs acute diplomatic attention.

A failed military mutiny in the Philippines last month showed the precarious state of a country where corruption, poverty, and ongoing Muslim and communist rebellions still give those with big guns a motive to challenge elected leaders. It didn't help that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo herself took office in 2001 with military help. With the US promising $356 million to assist the Philippine military, it can do more to bring about reform within those armed forces.

In Cambodia, the ruling party of leader Hun Sen, who was installed by Vietnam, won the third election since 1993 last week, but only by once again coercing village voters. And with his grip on the Army, Hun Sen may again threaten political foes with force, as he's done in the past, to end challenges to his rule. (Vietnam, meanwhile, remains ruthlessly antidemocratic.) The US has been close to Hun Sen, but it's time to withhold military assistance to a nation that operates with political terror.

Burma's generals, meanwhile, having lost and then scuttled the 1991 election, have once again detained Ms. Suu Kyi. The US and others are imposing economic sanctions, but they may have little effect until Burma's people, especially the nation's Buddhist monks, refuse to see the ruling junta as legitimate.

In Indonesia, the elected president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, has accommodated the military and its strong influence in society. Too few officers are being punished for human rights abuses, and former generals are reinventing themselves as politicians, many of them close to Ms. Megawati. Despite all that, the US has renewed its military aid to Indonesia.

Shoring up democracy should be the prime US goal in Southeast Asia. Ballots, not bullets, are the best defense against terrorism in the region.

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