Sunday, August 02, 2009

Two Giants of Democracy

There was a distinct feeling of the passing of an era this past week with the death of former Philippine president Corazon Aquino. Meanwhile, former president Kim Dae Jung was reported to be under intensive care in a Seoul, South Korea hospital.

As of this writing, Kim seems to be holding on to life, but he has bronchial pneumonia, which is a pretty dangerous thing for a man of 85. Together with the younger Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, they constituted the troika of democratic opposition to dictatorial rule in Asia.

For most of her adult life Cory, as she was known to everyone, was, as she always called herself, a simple housewife and helpmate to her husband Benigno Aquino, mayor, governor, senator and symbol of opposition to the iron rule of Ferdinand Marcos.

That changed suddenly in 1983 when, on returning from exile in the United States, Aquino was assassinated on the tarmac of Manila’s international airport by agents of the Marcos regime. In 1986 Cory ran for president against Marcos. Both claimed victory and Cory soon ousted Marcos in the famous “People Power” revolt.

She assumed power by the simple expedient of taking the oath of office and behaving as if she were the duly elected president. The armed forces and the powerful Roman Catholic Church moved behind her, and soon Marcos was on a flight to political retirement in Hawaii.

For Kim achieving the presidency was the culmination of a lifelong struggle. After two unsuccessful attempts, he won his first seat in parliament in 1961, only to find the National Assembly building surrounded by tanks in the military coup that brought Park Chung Hee to power three days later. In 1971 he made the first of four bids for president — running against Park himself.

He engendered Park’s undying enmity by winning as much as 46 per cent of the vote. In that first presidential campaign he was hit by a car, perhaps deliberately, and suffered an injury that made him walk with a shuffle for the rest of his life.

In 1973 he was abducted by agents of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) in Japan and brought back to South Korea forcefully. His political rights were restored shortly only after Park’s assassination in 1979.A year later Kim was accused of treason after students and residents of the southwestern city of Kwangju rose in a bloody insurrection.

In all, Kim spent five years in prison, seven under house arrests and two years in exile in the United States. Returning to Korea in 1985, he and his supporters had Aquino’s assassination two years previously strongly in mind. A couple of U.S. congressmen accompanied him to discourage any “copy cat” killings.

In the 1997 election Kim Dae Jung proved he was not only courageous but could also be shrewd, practical, even ruthless when he had to be. His comeback, which marked the first peaceful transfer of power from a ruling to an opposition party in South Korea's history, was a masterpiece of political manipulation.

He made an alliance of convenience with the conservative Kim Jong Pil, the very man who had masterminded the coup that prevented him from taking his assembly seat more than 30 years before and the founder of the KCIA, the agency that had tried to kidnap him.

He leaked allegations that the sons of his main opponent, Lee Hoi Chang, had avoided military service. These revelations, damaging enough to Lee, encouraged the ambitious mayor of Inchon, Rhee In Je, to enter the race, thus splitting the conservative vote and allowing Kim to squeak into power with about 40 percent of the vote.

As president, Kim Dae Jung showed toughness in getting his way with the legislature and Korea's large business conglomerates, but he also steadfastly held to his vision of reconciliation with North Korea, known as his "sunshine policy." He was rewarded with the Nobel Prize for Peace for his summit meeting with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2000.

Some of the luster went off of that achievement when it was later revealed that he had arranged with several large business conglomerates to bribe the North with about $500 million in cash to hold the meeting in PyongyangThere was personal sadness two when his two sons were accused of corruption.

These days the sun does not shine so brightly on the sunshine policy. A cold wind continues to blow from Pyongyang. The election of conservative Lee Myung Bak as president (another peaceful change of power) reflected growing disillusion in South Korea. Still elements, such as the Kaesong industrial zone across the Demilitarized Zone, remain in place.

Cory’s term as president was marked by half a dozen coup attempts. In one instance she was falsely accused of hiding under her bed in the presidential palace. “We’re Sorry Mrs. President!,” ran the subsequent headline of an apology printed in the Philippine Enquirer.

Probably her greatest achievement as president was the writing of the new 1987 Constitution, which has withstood many challenges and the closing of the two big American military bases without breaking the alliance and the enduring friendship. Some were disappointed that she was not the miracle worker who could bring her country out of poverty by herself.

Philippine democracy has endured with some fits and starts. A low point was the faux people Power reprise in 2001, which ousted the democratically elected Joseph Estrada and replaced him with and the incumbent Gloria Arroyo, who has been dogged throughout her tenure by questions of legitimacy.

In the Philippines Cory was obviously boosted by the late archbishopof Manila Cardinal Jaime Sin and by the then commander of the paramilitary police, Fidel Ramos, who succeeded Cory as president and also helped cement the country’s democracy up with a successful term.

There are, of course, other Asian democrats of note, including Martin Lee of Hong Kong and former president Kim Young Sam, a longtime democracy activist in his own right, who became in 1993 Korea's first elected civilian president in decades. But Cory Aquino and Kim Dae Jung are in a class by themselves.


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