It's the end of history all over again. The end of history was first proclaimed in the miraculous year 1989 when the Soviet Union tossed away its empire and the Berlin Wall came crashing down. The herald of history's end was political scientist Francis Fukuyama. In a widely discussed article, he offered the arresting thesis that communism's demise meant that mankind's millennia-long quest for the best political system had reached its conclusion. Liberal democracy was the ultimate.
Fukuyama likened the nations of the world to wagon trains during the California Gold Rush. They might travel different trails at different times, but they were all headed to the same destination.
Fukuyama wrote at the culmination of a 15-year stretch during which democracy had expanded further and faster than ever before. Beginning in 1974 in Portugal, where military rule was replaced by an elected government, democracy had spread to Greece and Spain, thence across Latin America and then on to Eastern Europe, the Philippines and the Soviet Union itself.
But in Asia, the advance of democracy met its first determined resistance, and suddenly history seemed not quite to be over. Although gradual democratization proceeded in Taiwan and South Korea, this was overshadowed by dramatic scenes in Tiananmen Square and the streets of Rangoon (now Yangon), where democratic hopes were snuffed out with brutal force.
The dictators justified their repressive actions by announcing a distinctive "Asian approach" to human rights, spelled out at a U.N. regional conference in Bangkok in 1993. While nominally endorsing international human rights treaties, the "Bangkok declaration" asserted that these must be interpreted in light of "national and regional peculiarities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds" and with respect for "national sovereignty." These were loopholes large enough to drive a column of tanks through.
Under the impact of these military and philosophical assaults, the democratic momentum abated.
The organization Freedom House reported that "as 1993 drew to a close, freedom around the world was in retreat."
As it turned out, freedom did not retreat much; rather it stalled. Until last month. Then, in a handful of Asian countries, one could hear the engines of democracy beginning to rev again. In Indonesia, student demonstrations swept Asia's longest ruling autocrat from power. In Hong Kong, despite a downpour, voters turned out in unforeseen numbers to award all 20 of the popularly chosen seats in the territory's legislature to pro-democracy parties defiant of Beijing. In Iran, 2,000 students organized by the Islamic Students Assn. rallied in Tehran to demand more democracy. They chanted "long live freedom" and "Taliban, Taliban, this is not Afghanistan."
In Myanmar, formerly Burma, several hundred members of the National League for Democracy, the party that had triumphed in the 1990 elections, convened to commemorate that vote, which the military had nullified.
In China, former Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang has called on the leadership to repudiate the Tiananmen Square repression. "The trend of democracy cannot be blocked," he declared.
Meanwhile, in the Philippines and South Korea, young democratic institutions were demonstrating their solidity. In the Philippines, a maverick and former film star won the presidency, sending shivers down the spines of the political establishment, but not a finger was lifted to impede his taking office. In South Korea, once famous for violent civil unrest, strikes continued against the consequences of the region's economic nose dive, without a ripple of interruption of democratic politics.
Taken together, these events have laid to rest the anti-democratic rationales of the Bangkok declaration, exposing it for what it was--an exercise in mutual support among dictators. Today, it is the democrats who reinforce one another. The Indonesia students studied film of Tiananmen Square, and Burmese democrats gathered to celebrate the fall of Indonesia's Suharto.
The epicenter of these events is in the Pacific Rim, but the impact will be felt more widely. Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country. With freedom rising there, and as the people of Iran demonstrate mounting impatience with theocratic rule, democracy could supplant religious fanaticism as the rising force among the world's 1 billion Muslims.
The passage to democracy will not be easy, but it is hard to see how these rumblings can be suppressed now that the Asian "economic miracle," which served as the rationale for so much authoritarian rule, has crashed to Earth. Democracy has resumed its march. History has begun to end again.