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November 30, 2000

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

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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

NOVEMBER 5, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 44

Marcus Grotz for Asiaweek
T H A I L A N D:
Chaturon Chaisang
Abhisit Vejjajiva

Chaturon Chaisang
Born 1956
Chaturon Chaisang always wanted to transform society. As a student union leader in the mid-1970s, he demanded radical change, fast. And got more of a change than he bargained for. After a bloody crackdown on the students' pro-democracy movement, Chaturon had to quit university and flee into the jungle. "We had to do everything for survival. Building our own hut, growing our own food," recalls Chaturon. For over three years he lived off the land. "It was tough physically, very tough. I learned a lot about the hardship of the ordinary people."

Today a mellower Chaturon, 43, is one of the brightest stars in the Thai political firmament. A member of the opposition New Aspiration Party (NAP), he gave a sterling display in parliament this year, besting finance minister Tarrin Nimmanhaeminda in a censure motion. Soon after, Chaturon was made secretary-general of the NAP. It is his job to regalvanize the party and win the next election, which must be called within a year.

A new breed of politicians and activists are ready to break the shackles of the past, here listed by country:

The People Power Century
Combining idealism and pragmatic political instincts, these leaders are repudiating politics-as-usual

Hong Kong Leung Chun-ying

India Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Chandrababu Naidu

Indonesia Andi Mallarangeng, Munir, and Emmy Hafild

Japan Noda Seiko, Shii Kazuo and Watanabe Yoshimi

Malaysia Hishammuddin Tun Hussein and Lim Guan Eng

Philippines Manuel Roxas II and Michael Defensor

Singapore Teo Chee Hean and George Yeo

South Korea Choo Mi Ae, Kim Min Seok and Nam Kyung Pil

Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou and Chen Shui-bian

Thailand Chaturon Chaisang and Abhisit Vejjajiva

Business & Finance
Journeying Beyond the Crisis
Born amidst unparalleled prosperity and tempered by adversity, a new generation of business leaders is poised to take the region to new levels of success in banking, commerce and industry

Although a studious, deeply cautious young man, Chaturon was never afraid to change tack when the occasion demanded. After his jungle sojourn he returned to school, but traded medicine at northern Chiang Mai University for an economics course in the U.S. - the better to reshape society with. Almost immediately upon his return to Thailand in 1986, parliament was dissolved. Aged just 30, he chose to shelve his doctorate and dreams of academe to hit the campaign trail. He won and has been returned at every poll since.

After stints with the Democrats and the People Party, Chaturon settled at the NAP, becoming deputy finance minister in the government of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. But old radicals never die. "A political party is an instrument," he says. "When I became secretary-general of the NAP, I still realized that I have to try to push forward the process of political reform. The reason I became a politician, the reason I am still a politician, is to change society." Chaturon wants a more open, efficient, democratic system, one that gives capable Thais the chances he believes they deserve. Some of the impatience of the student activist remains: "When I think about reform, I think about relatively rapid change - not step by step, little by little."

Despite all the bold talk, soft-voiced Chaturon has been criticized for being too meticulous, too cautious, as he threads his way up the political hierarchy. "It's been suggested that I have a tendency to be a perfectionist," Chaturon says. "So I have been trying to compromise on some aspects, but to get the main job done." In short, he's learning real politik. "I still think that I have to work much harder," he says. "I cannot be satisfied with my performance, because society still expects some creative ideas from politicians."

Marcus Grotz for Asiaweek

Abhisit Vejjajiva
Born 1964
In a milieu used to sleazy, corrupt politicians, Abhisit Vejjajiva is somehow too good to be true: a young lawmaker who abhors the old system and works tirelessly for a cleaner tomorrow. For the Thai people, used to some of the classic cigar-chomping, ill-informed loudmouths who stalk the halls of parliament, Abhisit offers a ray of hope.

Aged just 35, Abhisit has already served under two governments, a sign that "politics as usual" may be on the wane. Major ministries may still be the preserve of the old guard, but Abhisit has excelled as a government spokesman and as minister to the prime minister's office, where he oversees investment and education issues. Abhisit puts it down to people power. "In a democracy it is up to the people," he says. " We are seeing a wave of younger politicians being given a prominent role precisely because the parties need to respond to the public call for a changing of the guard."

The poster boy for the new wave, Abhisit enthralls students with his vision of money-free politics and captivates young women with his heartthrob looks. But he also cuts it with a more hard-headed audience. A panelist at the recent World Economic Forum summit in Singapore, Abhisit presented an emotional commentary on the recovery that moved some close to tears and won him a rare round of applause.

While Abhisit may seem young for a minister, he set out on his career path at the age of nine. When in 1973, a popular uprising transformed Thai politics overnight, Abhisit sat up late listening to the news. "Suddenly to me politics was no longer the business of the few. It was everybody's business," he says. "It opened up a new world and I thought I would like to be part of that." As a 16-year-old schoolboy in Britain, Abhisit balanced football ("I like to think I was good!") with more worldly issues. He fondly remembers the visit of a young Democrat MP who posed for a photograph with him - current PM Chuan Leekpai.

After studying for a Master's in economics at Oxford University and a stretch as a lecturer at Bangkok's Thammasat University, Abhisit won another photo op with Chuan when he was elected as a Democrat MP for Bangkok in March 1992. Heady pronouncements by the press that he may one day follow his mentor into the top job are something of an embarrassment to this modest father of two and devoted family man. "First you have to prove yourself," he says. Time and talent are on his side.

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