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The End is the Beginning is the End

Elections often mark the beginning of the end for the current regime. Sometimes, as in the United States, these transitions are rather smooth, even across parties. But three nations are being stricken with paralysis this week thanks to the transfer of powers brought about by their elections. Korea has just inaugurated its new president, the first democratically elected president from an opposition party. In Indonesia, Suharto is gearing up for his re-election to a seventh term in the presidency over growing unrest and rioting. And in Cambodia, Hun Sen seeks to put an official stamp of international approval on last year's bloody coup d'etat by holding elections which look to be anything but free. These three nations, being rocked by beginnings and ends, underline the fact that most of East Asia still has only a tenuous hold on democracy.

Kim Dae Jung (known as DJ to friends, as well as analysts struggling to distinguish him from the many other Kims of the Korean political world) was inaugurated into South Korea's highest office on February 25, bringing an end to the beginning of South Korea's move toward democracy. His opposition in Parliament wasted no time making him feel officially welcome, the way all good opposition parties should: starting a shoving match. The squabble was over DJ's candidate for Prime Minister, Kim Jong Pil of the United Liberal Democrats party, who is having difficulty obtaining the majority vote needed for confirmation because of obstructionist tactics by the majority Grand National Party. Memories of Kim Jong Pil's role in the bloody military coup of 1961 and his subsequent creation of the Korean Secret Service have led the GNP to announce that Kim is "not an appropriate candidate." DJ, who came to power on a platform of delivering Korea's badly needed reform, hasn't even been able to clear the first hurdle: appointing his cabinet.

To be sure, DJ has brought about significant reform even before taking office. He took steps to open up financial markets, and he has convinced Korea's powerful trade unions to accept laws allowing the firing of workers. But the Mar. 3 debate about his nominee for Prime Minister ended on in a shoving and shouting match on the floor of the National Assembly. And as the February 28 issue of the Economist reports, he is having trouble with his other plans as well. His idea for a budget oversight committee was shot down. His attempts to initiate talks with North Korea, designed to improve relations, have also been widely criticized as being "soft."

DJ will, eventually, select the Cabinet he chooses. But the fractious beginning of party politics in Korea marks an end to the domination and authoritarian rule that sparked the nation's economic development for three decades.

In Indonesia, President Suharto is readying himself for the beginning of his end amid a firestorm of rioting and criticism over his attempts to sidestep the IMF reform plan. He will be re-elected in March by the People's Consultative Assembly, his mostly hand-picked parliament, for what will probably be his last term -- one way or another. His second son, Bambang Trihatmodjo, was quoted in the Jakarta Post as saying that the 76-year-old Suharto "has no intention of contesting the 2003 elections." But then again, Suharto said that five years ago about the 1998 election.

Inflation and unemployment have sparked riots that have claimed five lives and caused millions of dollars worth of damage, and Suharto is facing a tidal wave of pressure from to rectify the situation. There is no doubt that reform is needed. Suharto told the opening of the 1998 session of the People's Consultative Assembly that the financial crisis is "more serious, more widespread and more lasting than anyone could have imagined. Our economic lifeline (has) begun to be compromised."

Pressure to change is coming from two major several directions. The international community is demanding that he accept the IMF reform package to help bail out his troubled nation. But economist Steven Hanke, calling the IMF plan a "total failure," is pushing what he calls "the IMF-plus plan," which includes fixing the exchange rate of the Indonesian rupiah against the dollar. (For more on Hanke's plan, see the previous article in this series.)

The United States is worried that Hanke's plan may fail spectacularly, and sent a special envoy, former vice president (and former Ambassador to Japan) Walter Mondale to meet with Suharto to voice these concerns. Mondale was accompanied by Treasury Undersecretary David Lipton and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Stanley Roth, demonstrating the importance of the visit. One Reuters report quoted a Clinton administration official as saying that if Indonesia did not undertake the IMF-prescribed economic reforms, the United States would oppose release of the next round of aid from the International Monetary Fund, slated for March 15.

Whatever economic reform is attempted, if inflation and unemployment are not brought under control soon, Indonesia's economy will fly over the edge into hyperinflation. And to make things worse, this election features one other ugly aspect. Suharto's only candidate for Vice President is Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibe, who has turned out to be deeply unpopular with the markets. Habibe's election could shake already wavering markets. The political unrest that would accompany such economic disasters might be enough to end Suharto's term long before the 2003 elections. This may be the beginning of the end for the Suharto regime.

In Cambodia, it seems to be the end of the beginning of Hun Sen's bloody rule. In 1997, the co-premiere staged a violent coup and overthrew the other co-premiere, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who was forced to flee the nation. With a general election scheduled for July, Hun Sen faces criticism from the United States and many other nations, who have thus far refused to acknowledge him as Cambodia's leader. Many nations have stated that they will not regard the election as free and fair unless Ranariddh is allowed to take part.

In a recent agreement authored by the Japanese, all parties have agreed that the Prince will return to Cambodia to face trial, the result of which is a foregone conclusion. After the Prince's conviction on charges of arms smuggling (or whatever nonsense Hun Sen has cooked up), he is to be officially pardoned so that he can take part in what Hun Sen has promised will be free, fair elections.

His promise rings false. As Peter Eng reported in the Los Angeles Times on March 1, 1998, Hun Sen's forces have executed 40 top members of the Prince's political party, FUNCINPEC. Furthermore, Hun Sen controls the media, and will likely use his security forces to "encourage" votes for himself. And without the 22,000 United Nations peacekeepers that ensured the last election in 1993 was free and fair, it is extremely unlikely that the air of fear will dissipate. The election seems to be over before it has begun.

The world has, by and large, ignored the coup. Possibly suffering from "Cambodia fatigue," the United Nations issued a condemnation of Hun Sen's coup, but no other action has been taken. The European Union, trying to support free elections, gave Cambodia $10.5 million to help fund the July tally, on the condition that Hun Sen reverse his ban on six opposition newspapers. But despite the EU's good intentions, they are supporting an election that will be neither free nor fair, and with Hun Sen's current structural advantages, the result of the election is almost as certain as the result of the Prince's trial. Even worse, the election will only lend credence (however little) to Hun Sen's power, by making him appear to be the choice of the people. The last election, won handily by the Prince, would indicate otherwise.

Cambodia, it seems, is slipping back to its past bad habits. The 1993 elections were free and fair only because of the gigantic UN effort. Previous elections, when there even were elections, tended to be violent affairs used by the ruling power to reaffirm its legitimacy. Dark memories of Pol Pot and the bloody years of his Khmer Rouge rule linger over the upcoming elections. The end of the Khmer Rouge seemed to be the beginning of democracy for Cambodia, but the beginning of Hun Sen's rule may be its end, at least for a while.

Naturally, all endings bring new beginnings. But gridlocked party politics in South Korea, unrest in Indonesia reminiscent of the last days of Sukarno's rule, and violent election maneuvering in Cambodia don't seem like natural cycles. It seems like a constant struggle to create and maintain the simplest of ideas: that people should be free to choose their own government.

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