Asians Weigh Democracy's Value Is China Too Big, Indonesia Too Vast for Western Way?

Article excerpt

DEMOCRACY BELONGS to a Western value system alien to Asian culture, some Asian leaders argue.

Tell that to:

Taiwan, which just held its most extensive elections.

Or Nepal, which just swore in Asia's only elected communist prime minister.

Or Sri Lanka, which voted out its government and chose Chandrika Kumaratunga as president, after she promised to bring peace to an island wracked by rebellion and the atrocities of war.

As democracy was making those strides, separate conferences in Malaysia and South Korea suggested that the debate is not simply a cultural clash between East and West, but a schism in Asia itself.

Delegates to the conference in Malaysia largely devoted themselves to rebutting Western concepts of democracy and civil liberties. The gathering in South Korea strongly endorsed the democratic way and denounced those leaders who reject it.

Even within Malaysia, where democracy functions under tight government restrictions, there are inklings of change. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has long been a prominent opponent of what he sees as Western posturing and arrogance in pushing human rights and democracy in Asia.

But his deputy and likely successor, Anwar Ibrahim, has been espousing a somewhat different line. The other day, in a speech in Hong Kong, he limited criticism of the West and concentrated most of his fire on the "altogether shameful" attitude of governments that use "Asian values" as an excuse for corrupt and autocratic rule.

Kim Sang-woo, a political scientist at the Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation, a co-host of the South Korean conference, said his group rejected the contention of some leaders that democracy is alien to Asia. "What emerged at the forum was that democracy in the region is indeed moving toward the right direction in many countries, but there are those that are still very much stagnant."

The problems are evident in emerging democracies like Bangladesh, paralyzed by political bickering and street protests, and Cambodia, where the hopes over last year's historic election have been dimmed by rural violence and governmental repression. …