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Friday, Sept 11
Southeast Asian Crises Spur Political Unrest
By David Lamb (Los Angeles Times)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - In Malaysia, a sacked deputy prime minister attracts a following by calling for political reform. In Indonesia, youths battle police over the soaring cost of food. In Cambodia, dissidents camp out near the National Assembly. In Myanmar, students demonstrate against the military government.

It has been a tumultuous week in Southeast Asia, made all the more unusual by the fact that, until recently, the region had produced a collection of spectator societies: Its citizens in most cases could vote, but they acquiesced to authority, didn't raise their voices in dissent and weren't greatly involved with the affairs that shaped their lives.

But the student protests that ended Indonesian President Suharto's 32-year rule last May emboldened some dissenters, and the regional economic crisis - now well into its second year - revealed societal structural cracks that some opposition groups are now daring to exploit. Throughout the region, impatience with the status quo is growing.

''What's going on today, directly or indirectly, is the result of economic problems,'' said Karim Raslan, a Malaysian writer and political analyst. ''The boom years were like a coat of plaster over a statue. And when the economy turned and the plaster peeled off, we saw how flimsy the statue was.

''We developed economically fast, but we didn't develop politically. ''

Although Southeast Asia has known its share of military coups over the years, popular uprisings such as those that brought down Suharto and President Ferdinand E. Marcos of the Philippines in 1986 have been rare. But the recent unrest could turn into people-power movements in each troubled country, except perhaps Malaysia, where the military steers clear of politics and the citizenry traditionally has greater trust in its government.

In Indonesia, food riots in the provinces and student protests in the capital, Jakarta, are threatening the presidency of B.J. Habibie - and, some say, the future of the country. The economic crisis has taken the jobs of 20 million Indonesians, about 10 percent of the population.

Habibie, who took power when Suharto fell and has pleaded for patience so he can carry out promised economic and political reforms, acknowledges the dangers. ''If our economic problems cannot be resolved within a short time,'' he said, ''their (the protesters') influence will be felt in other areas.''

But Habibie's pleas have not ended the protests. Riot police scuffled with demonstrators and fired warning shots Wednesday in Surabaya as about 4,000 students gathered to protest a presidential visit to Indonesia's second-largest city.

In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, the closed, state-controlled economy has been crippled not so much by the regional crisis as by more than 30 years of disastrous military rule. U.S. sanctions and grievances by human-rights groups have reduced tourism and foreign investment to a trickle.

The opposition has coalesced around Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in a 1990 election subsequently voided by the army. The military has responded to her calls to convene the parliament elected in 1990 by arresting party members - more than 300 were held as of Wednesday, party officials said.

In Cambodia, the economy was decimated by the withdrawal of foreign investment and aid after a bloody coup last year, during which former Khmer Rouge leader Hun Sen overthrew his co-prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

Hundreds of young jobless men, with no apparent political aim, joined this week's protests over Hun Sen's victory in disputed July elections. Hun Sen's troops battled the protesters in the streets of Phnom Penh, breaking up an encampment that had been dubbed ''Democracy Square'' and bringing the capital close to anarchy. Human-rights workers who requested anonymity reported Wednesday that a Buddhist monk was killed by gunfire, but the death could not be confirmed.

In Malaysia, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim was dismissed Sept. 2, just six days after Malaysia was officially declared to be in a recession. Hundreds of citizens have been turning up daily at his home to support his calls for political and economic reform, including an end to nepotism and crony capitalism.

Longtime Asia-watchers agree that the region has not seen so much widespread political unrest in the post-Vietnam War era.

''In most of the trouble spots there is a definite element of wanting democratic reform,'' a Western diplomat said. ''But I believe the bottom line is basically economics everywhere. If people don't have jobs, don't have food, don't have a sense of purpose to their days, there is going to be political instability.''