Democracy Put to the Test All across Asia: Tide of Freedom Begins to Ebb in Many Nations

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HONOLULU - The march of democracy in Asia through which Vice President Al Gore, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and dozens of congressmen have been traveling in recent weeks has begun to falter after 10 years of promise and progress.

Within the next few months will come critical tests, particularly in South Korea and the Philippines, where incumbent presidents have been tempted to overturn constitutions so that they can remain in power.

Until now, Asian democracy had been rising in roughly four waves since the end of World War II in 1945. The early democracies in India and Australia were legacies of British rule; in Japan, democracy was imposed by the United States after Japan's defeat.

In the newer democracies of South Korea and Taiwan, authoritarian rule fostered economic development, which in turn spawned middle classes that, by the late 1980s, were demanding a political say. In the case of the Philippines, that nation inherited democracy from U.S. colonial rulers, lost it to a dictator who plundered the economy, then revived democracy in the late 1980s.

A senior Philippine official and strategic thinker, Jose T. Almonte, underscored the importance of economic progress to the evolution of democracy in Asia, telling a recent conference at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, a U.S. government educational institute in Honolulu: "Once people become richer and more secure, they demand political participation, they demand a say in how they are governed, they demand respect for their status from their rulers."

A third wave of democracy was expected in the "soft authoritarian" nations of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, the "New Tigers" in which rulers led, goaded and cajoled bureaucrats, business executives and labor into economic growth even as they repressed political activity. Eventually, the autocrats were to have given way to democracy.

Even in the authoritarian nations of China, Vietnam and Burma there were glimmerings of democracy. The student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989 were the most notable before they were crushed.

The successors to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam began economic reforms in 1988 that gave faint hope to advocates of democracy, and Aung San Suu Kyi, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize, began encouraging her supporters in Burma to strike peaceably for democracy.

Today, the surge of democracy has faded from Seoul to Singapore to Sri Lanka. What had seemed an inexorable rising tide has ebbed.

Robert A. Scalapino of the University of California, who is among America's most respected scholars on Asia, cautioned the Asia-Pacific Center's conference: "Every political system is put on trial at various points. None is guaranteed permanence."

Among the older democracies, Japan is paralyzed by divided, ineffective government. India is close to chaos with a coalition of a dozen fractured parties trying to run the government. …