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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE ASIAWEEK POWER 50

Power's Darker Sides

By Roger Mitton


VILLAINS ARE OFTEN MORE interesting than heroes, and Asia has had its share of baddies in the past half-century. The following is an eclectic (and decidedly subjective) list of Asian leaders who wielded their clout in a way detrimental to their people. Some stand as convicted criminals, others bumbling buffoons, a few plain bonkers. Each is rated from * (benignly bad) to ***** (Satan's agent). Despot Pol Pot is excluded, since he belongs in a separate category with the likes of Hitler.

Cambodia: Lon Nol (1970-75). Seizing power with U.S. backing, he led the country down the tubes, instituting pogroms against ethnic Vietnamese, shackling the media and taking venality and corruption to new heights. Fled into exile in 1975 as the nation was engulfed in savagery and taken over by the Khmer Rouge. ***

China: No shortage of candidates, but among the worst was Mao Zedong (1949-76) for the disastrous final 20 years of his rule. The most prominent of his debacles during that time: the Great Leap Forward, which reversed industrial and agricultural progress and caused widespread famine; and the Cultural Revolution, which decimated the country's best and brightest and caused appalling and unnecessary hardship to millions of Chinese. Not until after Mao's death, when the formerly vilified Deng Xiaoping was able to return to power, did China begin to recover and show its real potential. ****

India: Asia's other sleeping giant has only recently begun to wake up from the torpor induced by a series of lackluster governments. But really the country started out on the wrong foot due to the misguided leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-64). Shackled by notions of Fabian socialism and non-alignment bordering on xenophobia and outright antipathy to profit-seekers, this sainted champion of freedom and Third World dignity kept India down in the dirt for 40 years. At least he was a democrat and tolerated opposition. **

Japan: For sheer bald-faced corruption, Tanaka Kakuei (1972-74) takes the cake. Indicted and convicted of massive bribery in the Lockheed scandal, the ruthless Tanaka was a real Mafioso-type godfather who, even out of office, wielded more power than most premiers did in office. ****

South Korea: Chun Doo Hwan (1980-88) bests any recent Korean leader in venality and corruption, not to say brutality and repression. Such was the public antipathy toward him that after leaving office, he was forced to apologize and later brought to trial. Narrowly escaped a death sentence. ***

Myanmar: No real contest - Ne Win (1958-60, 1962-88) wins hands down. With the same kind of barmy arrogance that characterized the likes of Mao and Nehru, this Burmese general imposed an idiosyncratic form of economic and political isolation on his nation and kept the place in an impoverished time warp that persists to this day. Thankfully, he saw the light in 1988 and stepped down - but only to give way to a bunch of fellow generals who have done little better. *****

Philippines: Ferdinand Marcos (1965-86). What can you say about a guy who held power for so long by means fair and foul? He initially maintained stability but then precipitated instability and unrest. He was elected democratically twice but later banished democracy by imposing a brutal form of martial law. He elevated corruption to new heights and siphoned off much of his country's wealth as it degenerated into economic and political stagnation. Not a nice guy. *****

Thailand: Of the thieves and gangsters who ruled the country in recent years, Banharn Silapa-archa (1995-96) is the one with the edge for combining bumbling ineptitude with an unsavory reputation for all that is bad in Thai politics. Still, his eminently forgettable and thankfully brief administration contributed to Thailand adopting a new Constitution designed to avoid such governments. Even the bad can bring good. *

The worst of the lot? Perhaps a toss-up between Mao and Nehru who, though well-intentioned, kept Asia's two giants backward for so long. This towering duo, whose stars are undimmed in their own countries, are likely to be judged by history as frustrating amalgams of good and bad. They were the best of leaders, they were the worst of leaders.


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