THE MOVEMENT toward democracy in East and Southeast Asia is at a turning point. Already South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand have tossed out dictators and, at varying speeds, democratized. Often thanks to the heroism of ordinary people and after the suffering of democracy activists, these nations, following the long-established examples of India and Japan, have given the lie to the "Asian values" theory--the notion, cheerfully endorsed by authoritarian rulers in China and elsewhere, that democracy is a Western import unsuitable to Asian ways.
Now Southeast Asia's most populous and in some ways most important country, Indonesia, has embarked on a similar path. Its newly elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid, arrives in Washington today for a brief visit and his first official meeting with President Clinton. Mr. Wahid, a democracy advocate during the long years of authoritarian rule under President Suharto, has begun with bold and encouraging steps. His choices for vice president and Cabinet reached out across religious, political and geographic fissures. He quickly recognized East Timor's right to independence and promised to work toward a solution for the very different challenge posed by the restive area of Aceh. He has promised to pursue further economic and democratic reform.
Mr. Wahid and his government face huge obstacles: poverty, the legacy of top-down rule, uncertain cohesion of a vast archipelago. If he asks for help today, it is in the U.S. interest to respond. The response should not yet include a resumption of military assistance. Until 200,000 East Timorese refugees are permitted to return home from camps in West Timor, and the Indonesian military cooperates with investigations into the sacking of its former territory, those sanctions must remain. But the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are right to resume their aid. This is a time to celebrate and encourage, not sanction and lecture.