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S. E. Asia Comes of Age With Stability in Doubt

Regional bloc adds Burma and Laos this week. But Cambodia and currency woes take shine off success

Ira Paiz's eyes widen at the question. Would this young business student and Brad Pitt fan ever leave Malaysia to find fortune elsewhere - maybe America? "Why?" she asks. "I love Malaysia!"

And why shouldn't she? This country presents perhaps the best face of Southeast Asia - economic opportunity, well-managed diversity, and more-or-less democratic politics.

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Skyscrapers abound in this capital and signs of the global consumer culture are everywhere: The children's floor of a department store even has a McDonald's geared to kids. The Malay, Chinese, and Indian faces on the streets are as varied as Kuala Lumpur's cuisines. Women in demure head scarves and long sleeves demonstrate Islam's influence in this largely Muslim country, while the occasional short black skirt indicates that others get their fashion advice from Donna Karan, not the Holy Koran.

Malaysians want to help lead the rest of Southeast Asia into a similar peaceful prosperity. Some parts of the region - Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, and to lesser extent Indonesia - are already there, and Southeast Asians are now trying to come together to encourage poorer countries such as Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

Like Europeans and North Americans, Southeast Asians are coming to accept that future economic success lies in close cooperation with neighbors, preferably in an organization that can guarantee peace and the flow of commerce.

But despite the smoothly efficient example set by Malaysia (which has expanded its economy) and despite potentially fractious ethnic and religious divisions, Southeast Asians have been reminded in recent weeks that economic uplift and political stability can wither fast. First Cambodia's government unraveled, and then many of the region's currencies sagged.

The region's complex future has been evident this week in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, during the annual meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Formed as an anticommunist bloc 30 years ago, ASEAN is increasingly a symbol of the dynamism and confidence of one of the world's most economically vibrant groups of countries.

The most painful lesson has been the unrest in Cambodia. ASEAN played a crucial role in bringing about a 1993 election that was intended to bring peace and democracy to a country long torn by civil war and bloodshed.

The result of the election was a tenuous powersharing arrangement, which broke apart early this month, and now there is a possibility that Cambodians could again turn to violence to resolve their political differences.

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The tension and uncertainty killed plans to have Cambodia join ASEAN this week, a step that would have meant the long-awaited inclusion of all 10 Southeast Asian states in the organization. With Cambodia's accession on hold, ASEAN went ahead and admitted Laos and Burma to its group.

"We have been reminded," Malaysian Foreign Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said at a somber welcoming ceremony, "that peace and stability can never be taken for granted." Indeed, some analysts say that a newly expanded ASEAN will itself make the organization a little less stable.

The group has developed an "ASEAN way" that stresses noninterference in countries' internal affairs, a consensus-oriented decisionmaking process, and lots of consultation. It is a way of doing business that has helped the member nations to overcome some of their differences and historical animosities.

"The main achievement," says ASEAN's outgoing secretary general, an urbane Malaysian named Ajit Singh, "has been the consolidation of peace and stability in the region. None [of the member countries] has gone to war."

But the group's internal disparities are widening. In terms of political systems, ASEAN now ranges from a healthy democracy (the Philippines) to a military dictatorship (Burma) to what can perhaps be called a communist anachronism (Laos).

And the admission of Laos and Burma means ASEAN now includes countries of radically mismatched economies - the two new admissions are a long way off economically from powerhouses like Thailand and Singapore.

"More diversity will make things more difficult in terms of consensus-building," says Aileen Baviera, a political scientist who heads the government-backed Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies in Manila.

Even imagining the sort of economic and political cooperation now being pursued by the European Union - the multinational group that has inspired so much regionalism around the world - is "a bit too ambitious for us," says a senior Thai official.

The sudden fall in the value of many ASEAN members' currencies - particularly in Thailand and the Philippines - has signaled that the region's economic future is by no means guaranteed. The nations of Southeast Asia all face new competition from China and the more prosperous economies among them are finding that they must make the transition from the industrial age to the information age or risk stagnation.

The currency crisis yesterday prompted Malaysia's prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamed, to lash out at "rogue speculators" for orchestrating "a well-planned effort to undermine the economies of all the ASEAN countries by destabilizing their currencies."

"The world now talks glibly of a borderless world, of the information age, of open markets, and open societies," Mr. Mahathir said. "But can we really gain access to these markets, or will the removal of borders cause a flow in one direction only?"

Mahathir, a doctor-turned-politician who receives much of the credit for Malaysia's two decades or so of rapid economic growth, heads a long-dominant ruling party and enjoys broad public support.

The Malaysian leader's comments are, in some respects, classic ASEAN. The association has long sought an independent voice, and the admission of Burma - a country often criticized by Western nations for its poor human-rights record - is an example of the group pursuing its own policies.

But it bears remembering that from the colonial era to the cold war, Southeast Asians have a long and frequently painful history of contact with the powerful nations of Europe and America.

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