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Editorial & Opinion 

      PERSPECTIVE: Asean,
      minus Suharto, will

      The epochal change in Indonesia last week
      will alter the fundamental perceptions and
      structures of future relations among
      countries in Southeast Asia and
      consequently their ties with the rest of the
      now that the disgraced former president
      Suharto, one of Asean's main architects,
      has stepped down. 

      Although it is too early to tell the scope and
      substance of the reforms that the new
      Indonesian government under President
      Jusuf Habibie is willing to commit itself to, it
      is suffice to take the view that Indonesia will
      be more democratic with genuine political
      pluralism and be more tolerant to the
      freedom of expression. 

      Back in 1989 the collapse of the former
      Soviet empire allowed Eastern European
      countries, which were under the direct
      influence of Moscow, to break free and
      demolished communism. Now most of the
      former Soviet allies have become fully
      fledged democracies. These changes were
      more or less peaceful despite the initial
      threat of violence and economic difficulties. 

      Some of them have even embarked oi
      integrating with the broader European
      economy, the European Union, as well as
      Europe's security structure, particularly the
      North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. 

      In more ways than one, this welcome trend
      is finding new expression now in Southeast
      Asia. For the past three decades Indonesia
      under the authoritarian rule of Suharto has
      been used as a successful model for
      developing countries, that of a strong
      leadership which enables business and
      economy to prosper at the expense of

      In fact, given the impressive economic
      development, an average of eight per cent
      per annum between 1990 and 1996, the
      international community, especially
      Jakarta's friends, has been willing to turn a
      blind eye to Indonesia's political
      suppression and uncertainty. In 1996
      Indonesia ranked seventh in the
      International Monetary Fund's top-ten
      emerging economies. It was the envy of the

      As such, Indonesia wields extraordinary
      influence among developing countries in
      the world including members of the
      Non-aligned Movement and the
      Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
      Closer to home, Indonesia is the backbone
      of Asean. Created in 1967, Asean's main
      objective was to engage and contain this
      powerful neighbour. 

      Within Southeast Asia, new Asean
      members have sought to emulate
      Indonesia. Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia and
      Laos are interested in its economic
      development coupled with the assertive
      and assured roles of the military in both the
      economic and political sphere. The
      Indonesian armed forces and constitution
      have been used as a prototype for Burma's
      military leaders and the drafting of a new

      However, last week's sudden change in
      Indonesia has caught these countries off
      guard. None would think that Suharto would
      step down this fast and that his grip on
      power would crumble so rapidly. Worse,
      some of the reform measures the new
      Indonesian government has chosen to take,
      such as the planned release of political
      prisoners and to conduct dialogues with the
      opposition, are considered taboo in these

      Previously, the world's fourth largest country
      has always represented the lowest
      common denominator within the Asean
      cooperative framework, be it economic or
      political. If Jakarta is not happy, the rest of
      Asean is not supposed to go against
      Asean's big boss. It is often said in Asean
      that the grouping can only move as slow as
      its largest member. 

      Throughout the modern history of Southeast
      Asia, Suharto's strong leadership and the
      nation's principle of pancasila (''five pillars'')
      have represented the core values for many
      countries in the region. With a more open
      and democratic Indonesia, Asean's future
      will definitely be brighter. For one thing it
      will not be so inclined to support
      authoritarian regimes. 

      To many this may sound a bit optimistic at
      this juncture. However, given the prospect
      of Indonesia's long-term reforms, its
      Suharto-era norms would all have to be

      And as Indonesia changes, Burma and
      other less democratic countries expect to
      face serious problems. For the first time, a
      new Indonesia will provide the
      much-needed impetus for democratisation
      within the Asean region. Thus it will provide
      a positive influence in the overall Asean

      Six months ago in Kuala Lumpur the Asean
      leaders agreed with the Thai proposal that
      ''open society'' should be a common
      objective of Asean. It was only through the
      last-minute support of Indonesia that the
      text was passed. The quiet revolution in
      Indonesia will now also encourage Asean
      to take up sensitive issues such as human
      rights, democracy and respect for the role
      of non-governmental organisations. With
      Jakarta's support, Asean will be able to
      pursue this new avenue. 

      Beyond that, the new Indonesia will also
      promote the realisation of the Asean Free
      Trade Area in 2003. In the past the
      government had to protect the Suharto
      family's business and monopolies and thus
      moved at a snail's pace. With a more
      transparent economic system Indonesia
      can now play a role in accelerating the full
      integration of the Asean free-trade area. 

      The situation in Indonesia has taught Asean
      leaders the lesson that real economic
      development cannot be achieved without
      simultaneously practicising democracy, and
      now, with the backing of Indonesia, the
      Asean political system is ready to undergo
      a facelift. 


      The Nation