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Photo montage by Adam Connors

Who had the power 25 years ago?

Power Plays, '75

Maybe the passing years warp our memory, but doesn't it seem to you that the personalities who dominated Asian political life in the past were greater than those around today? Not better in any moral sense (many of them were brutes and cowards, congenitally unable to exercise compassion, logic or fidelity), but more dramatic players in a bigger, more powerful story. Take 1975, for instance.

To bend a term that comes to us courtesy of Iraq's Saddam Hussein (surely a candidate for the top 10 of any world list of the powerful and nasty), 1975 was the mother of all years -- the one that in a sense gave birth to modern Asia. That was when the wars in South Vietnam and Cambodia finally came to a tumultuous end, raising the prospect of the rest of Southeast Asia tumbling behind them into the lap of either the Soviet Union or China. It was a turning point in time. It was also the year in which Asiaweek was first published. So, as the magazine prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary, this is perhaps a fitting occasion to look back at the people who were powering the news in Asia in our first editions.

These days, President Jiang Zemin is clearly the most powerful figure in the most powerful nation in the region. He would like nothing better than for the Chinese people to remember him as one of the three "greats" of the People's Republic, along with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. But can Jiang even for a moment be compared in stature to Mao, a giant whose name will always be associated with drama (and folly) on a truly historic scale? Here was a man who in 1975 was in the last year of a long life in which he had heroically snatched his fellow-countrymen from feudalism and then dispatched maybe 30 million of them to senseless death in the Great Leap Forward. And let's not forget whom he selected as a wife. Jiang Qing, later reviled as leader of the Gang of Four, had her political enemies done away with on a whim. The last person she killed was herself, in prison in 1991.

After the fall of Phnom Penh in April 1975, the shadowy Pol Pot was beginning a crazed political experiment that in relative ambition, if not in pure numbers, matched Mao's excesses. In four years, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians perished, either summarily executed or succumbing to disease and starvation in the countryside. In newly "liberated" and unified Vietnam, Communist Party leaders Le Duan and Le Duc Tho were mirthlessly delivering a harsh dose of Stalinist reality to the former South. They drove out the capitalists (meaning the Chinese), re-educated anybody suspected of having shared a bowl of rice with an American and scrupulously laid the groundwork for economic stagnation.

That's what Ne Win did in what is now Myanmar. He called his political experiment the Burmese Way to Socialism, and it accelerated his country's decline into a police state and economic paraplegia. In 1975, Ferdinand Edralin Marcos was at the summit of his pernicious power. Three years after imposing martial law under the banner of a New Society, he was president and prime minister of the Philippines and master of all the key institutions, except the Church. Thousands of political rivals -- including his nemesis Benigno Aquino -- languished in jail, and a war was being waged in the south against Muslim separatists. Virtually unchallenged, Marcos awarded his wife, Imelda, the position of governor of the newly formed Metropolitan Manila. Powerful stuff.

The only Southeast Asian to rival Marcos for pure power was Suharto. Nine years after taking effective control of the Indonesian government, the former assistant bank clerk had used a wily combination of military muscle and political dexterity to stand alone as the guardian of his country's destiny. His New Order policies dragged tens of millions of Indonesians out of poverty, but, in the end, it was chronic abuse of power that brought Suharto down. He was humiliated and ousted in 1998. That left Lee Kuan Yew as the sole leader from 1975 still exercising real authority today.

Formerly Singapore's prime minister and now its senior minister (and, by some accounts, still its chief strategist), Lee has toe-ended the city-state to a position of unchallenged prosperity in Southeast Asia. Had there been an Asiaweek Power 50 in 1975, he would have undoubtedly been in the top five. Today, he is at No. 23. Now that's what you call staying power.

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Asiaweek Power 50 2000
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