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After the dictators

Want to know what will happen in the Arab world after the fall of despots such as Gaddafi and Mubara

After weeks of riots, demonstrations and bloody counterattacks, the dictator at last stood down. His promised reforms were not enough. Eventually the armed forces, from whose ranks he had emerged and whose loyalty had shored up his regime for nearly 30 years, would no longer support him. Some feared that when elections were held, Islamists would take over. In the event, the first fair presidential vote did bring to power the leader of a Muslim organisation; but moderation prevailed. The country's citizens were too attached to their newly won freedom to allow anyone to restrict their rights again.

A decade on, corruption is rife, many of the dictator's past associates are big political players, and the former ruler was never brought to account for the human rights violations that took place on his watch. But change has come. The US president has hailed the country as a model for how Muslim-majority autocracies can become pluralist democracies.

This is an outline of what happened when a long-serving dictator fell from power in 1998 - General Suharto of Indonesia. Can something similar happen in the Middle East and North Africa? For decades of their post-independence history, the countries of the Far East and south-east Asia were ruled by autocrats. One by one, however, nearly all the despots have fallen, or stepped down, or begun to open up their state's political sphere and relinquish power. In some countries, the change happened dramatically, as in Indonesia and in the Philippines' People Power Revolution of 1986, which saw off Ferdinand Marcos. In others, "soft authorita­rians" such as Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and Malay­sia's Mahathir Mohamad voluntarily terminated long periods in office. Democracy today may be limited, as it is in Singapore, shaky (Cambodia) or intermittent (Thailand). But principles of good governance, such as independence of the judiciary, took root so quickly in South Korea and Taiwan that both countries have tried and convicted democratically elected presidents.

Throughout the region, repression is on the wane. The cheers for democracy have been unstoppable. So, what lessons can east Asia offer to an Arab world awakening to a new revolt in which the despotic leaders of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and, in effect, Yemen have departed while others, notably in Syria and Bahrain, sweat in their gilt-edged beds?

To borrow a phrase from the Jakarta Globe columnist Karim Raslan, "an authoritarian consensus" existed in both regions: economic development was the trade-off for lack of democracy and civil rights. The leaders of these lands used the same tool - varying forms of anti-colonial rhetoric - and not just those who had won their position through revolution or armed struggle, as in the case of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and Indo­nesia's Sukarno, but also monarchs such as Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, whom the French had placed on the throne thinking he was a playboy they could manipulate, but who ended up touring the world demanding his country's independence.

In both regions, stability was a prize attained only with great effort - the boundaries of many countries had been drawn by the colonial powers, and frequently created artificial barriers between ethnic groups or lumped together historically antagonistic peoples. That prize was palpably fragile, but the consequent imperatives of "national unity" also became a convenient excuse for heavy-handed police action, risible elections and the restriction of liberties. This was overlooked by the west, however, for the dictators were our allies.

In the implicit bargain between autocratic leaders and their populaces, everything hung on the prospect of prosperity. In his 2007 modern social history Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and South-East Asia, Joe Studwell argued that the countries he covered had enjoyed a "developmental honeymoon". In this state, he wrote:

"Populations are unusually willing to trust authority and their leaders' promises to deliver continuous improvements in standards of living. When south-east Asians were told that free association of labour was antithetical to growth . . . and that constraints on individual freedom and the media are part of Asian culture, they acquiesced."

When the honeymoon soured or came to an abrupt end, the regimes fell. It was not anger about human rights abuses that brought Suharto down, but his government's catastrophic response to the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Eleven years earlier, if an ailing President Marcos had not lost control of the Philippines' economy, his wife, Imelda, might have been able to carry on expanding her notorious shoe collection.

People can tolerate plutocratic elites so long as some of the wealth appears to trickle down. For most of the time, it did in east Asia. Not so, or not sufficiently, in west Asia and its environs. And it is not just in this that the Arab dictators have worse records than their western-backed east Asian predecessors. In terms of targeted massacres of their own people, for instance, few of them went as far as promising the "rivers of blood" that Colonel Gaddafi wanted rebellious Libyans to suffer. Nor could many match Syria's destruction of the town of Hama in 1982, when up to 40,000 people died in President Hafez al-Assad's attempt to wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood in his country. A desire for punitive retribution is understandable. But, judging by the precedents in east Asia, it should be resisted.

This is because if there is one thing that has marked the transition towards democracy in east Asia, it has been an almost bewilderingly magnanimous accommodation with the past. In Indonesia, several of Suharto's top generals have been on the ticket in presidential elections; one, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is the incumbent. Marcos's widow is in the Philippines congress, and their son is a senator. Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, is a former member of the Khmer Rouge and was also premier of the Vietnamese-installed People's Republic of Kampuchea in the 1980s. Pol Pot's genocidal regime fell over 30 years ago, but only five senior Khmer Rouge cadres have faced trial so far, and one has been convicted. There appears to be little appetite for the UN-backed war crimes court to bring more to justice.

Strategic amnesia

Occasionally, the willingness to ignore the dictators' past atrocities and embrace their memory is quite incomprehensible to the outside world. In the Philippines, there have been calls for Marcos to be honoured with a state funeral. And last year the Indonesian government proposed to make Suharto a "national hero". The award-winning author Tash Aw, whose first two novels are set in Malaysia and Indonesia, puts it thus: "I think it is a typically Asian way of dealing with the trauma of history: we have to ignore the ugly truth of what happened in the past in order to move forward."

This amnesia can also be explained partly by a necessity to salvage something from the strongmen's decades. If the dictators and autocrats were entirely bad, even evil, then swaths of the years these states have been independent must be regarded as shameful. Indonesia, for instance, was ruled from 1945 to 1998 by two such men - Sukarno and then Suharto. Can its people only celebrate the last 13 years of its existence? Moreover, at the time they took power, these men nearly all drew on local sources of legitimacy and enjoyed tremendous popularity. Many were involved in the liberation struggle. Quite a few were elected to begin with, as were Marcos, Sukarno and Sihanouk (when he renounced the throne to become prime minister in 1955), while those parliamentary autocrats, Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew, earned their leadership time and again in national polls. Even Ne Win, who led the military coup in Burma in 1962 and ruled until 1988, had become prime minister entirely legally in 1958, and duly handed power back after 17 months.

Neither are their records as unequivocal as western observers usually portray them. They were mostly successful at maintaining stability - dictators tend to be good at that - but also in bringing millions out of poverty. In a region where Lee Kuan Yew could proudly title the second volume of his memoirs From Third World to First, raising standards of living was an achievement neither ignored at the time nor forgotten today. Western-style pluralistic liberal democracy was absent from Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s; but that was also when their astonishing growth led them to become known as the Asian Tiger economies. All his crimes cannot take away from Suharto that he reduced Indonesia's inflation rate from 650 per cent in 1966 to under 20 per cent within three years; and his harshest critics will admit that substantial progress was made in education, health care and infrastructure.

It is not that the populations of these countries are not aware that, in many cases, "these people stole their money, and with relative impunity", says Bridget Welsh, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins and Singapore Management universities. "But there comes a point when these individuals become part of the national story. Their legacy is in things that people can identify with, like roads and schools."

Similarly in the Middle East, the revolutions that brought the generation of Pan-Arab nationalist leaders to power were "popular" in both the political and the quotidian senses, at least initially. The memory of the most prominent of those men, Gamal Abdel Nasser, remains sufficiently inspiring that, in the early days of the Arab spring, al-Jazeera reported images of the former Egyptian president being "raised in Cairo and across Arab capitals by people who were not even alive when Nasser died in 1970". He was a dictator nevertheless, as was his successor-but-one, Hosni Mubarak. Will the latter be remembered only for his tyranny? Or will future generations of Egyptians recall the air force commander who became a hero of the 1973 Yom Kippur war? The Gulf monarchs, on the other hand, have not only kept their part of the economic bargain (easy, with all that oil) but are the heads of ruling families that for generations have stood at the apex of tribal hierarchies.

If an emphasis on reconciliation rather than truth is a feature of the post-dictator landscape, then so is a rather different form of democracy from the kind practised in the west. It will almost certainly be one in which religion assumes a prominence that would dismay secularists. It is also likely to be one in which a very different notion of liberty prevails. "You place so much value on individuals' rights that you forget that the majority has rights also," Malaysia's Mahathir told me in an interview last year. He, and other proponents of the "Asian values" theory, reject western-style liberal democracy on the grounds that it is based on foreign social, cultural, religious, ethnic and economic factors, and that it constitutes a "reckless free-for-all".

As the highly respected Singapore-based political scientist Farish A Noor wrote recently: "Democracy, it has to be remembered, is a rather novel introduction to our part of the world. Prior to that, our ancestors lived in the realm of god-kings where the ruler and the state was one and the same thing. Our real concern should be whether the peoples of the Arab world . . . know how to handle the public domain with the care it deserves. This includes having to learn the rules of participatory democracy while on the go."

We should certainly lend whatever help we can to countries newly embracing such challenges. Beyond that, however, the lessons from east Asia's transitions towards to democracy are for the outside world to refrain from judging too loudly when dynastic tendencies emerge; from lecturing when our standards of transparency and governance are not met; and above all from intervening and taking control of the process. The US and other western countries, Welsh says, "have to recognise that they can't do it themselves. Invasions and no-fly zones put them, and not the people who need to be, in the driving seat. Telling people that things need to be done for them just infan

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires