Photo montage by Adam Connors|
Power Plays, '75
Who had the power 25 years ago?
By PETER CORDINGLEY
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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