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Turmoil in Both Markets And Politics: Is There a Link?

Leadership struggles complicate slumping economies of a region, weakening democracy.

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As Asia's economies crumble, the region's authoritarian leaders are on the march again.

In Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, police yesterday used Kalashnikov rifles to fire on demonstrators, critically injuring at least one student in the fourth day of a crackdown against largely peaceful political protests.

Burma's military rulers have detained hundreds of opposition leaders over the past several days, at times dragging elderly politicians out of their homes in the middle of night to "invite" them for discussions.

In Malaysia, long known for stable, relatively democratic politics, the prime minister on Sept. 2 fired his protg for "moral" reasons and put himself in charge of internal security and financial affairs.

These Southeast Asian countries have their own particular circumstances, making generalizations risky, but it appears that Asia's economic troubles are producing unexpected political repercussions: the weakening of movements toward democracy.

The events of early September highlight a reversal of political logic that the US and other democratic countries used to cheer. During the 1980s and early 1990s, it seemed inevitable that as governments liberalized their markets and opened their economies, their people would begin to demand more political choices as well. The days of Asian despots - including the communist parties of China and Vietnam - seemed numbered.

Suddenly, Chinese and Vietnamese leaders look like geniuses for shielding their economies, at least in part, from the regional recession. And in some countries leaders are apparently deciding that if the free market doesn't work, then there's no need to make politics any freer.

"The economic disintegration of the region has had the effect of forcing attention inward," says Donald Emmerson, a Southeast Asian politics expert at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "In a sense these people feel unmoored, in that the world they had hooked themselves to has disappointed them."

Many of the countries in the region remain mindful of their obligations to the global economy and their foreign investors, he cautions, but adds that economic frustrations are producing a "particular interest in stability."


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