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Not-so-benevolent strongmen

The passing of Indonesia's Suharto offers an opening for the country to judge his past.

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The passing this week of a former strongman, Suharto of Indonesia, has brought forth more praise than disdain. His 32-year reign over the fourth most populous nation left a mixed legacy, the kind that, unfortunately, inspires leaders who suppress freedom in the name of prosperity.

Suharto's ability to manage an economy in a volatile global market failed him a decade ago. He was forced from power, allowing democracy to be restored to this huge Southeast Asian nation of 235 million people and 17,000 islands.

China now serves as the latest model of a country flouting the Western model that says democracy and economic growth must go hand in hand over the long term. Last year, China's economy grew an astounding 11.4 percent under a regime that tolerates little dissent. For India, a well-established democracy, growth is less than 9 percent.

Under Suharto, Indonesia saw an average gross domestic product growth of nearly 7 percent, a record that his freely elected successors find difficult to match. He's also credited with reducing the level of poverty from 60 to 15 percent of the population.

The strongest praise for this former general has come from ex-Asian leaders who also acted in authoritarian ways, such as Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew. After paying respects to Suharto, Mr. Lee said: "Yes, there was corruption. Yes, he gave favors to his family and his friends. But there was real growth and real progress."

Singapore also enjoyed decades of prosperity under a virtual one-party system (and very little corruption). In many ways, it was a model for China in the late 1970s when communist leaders under Deng Xiao Ping embraced capitalism. And lately, Russia under Vladimir Putin has adopted this "Asian model."

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