As the latest and possibly greatest threat yet to the 30-year rule of Indonesian President Suharto, Megawati Sukarnoputri joins a pantheon of Asian women who have challenged some of the continent's toughest strongmen, and in many cases won.

But behind Asia's many female-led democracy movement, from Indoneisia to Burma to the Philippines, women continue to hold surprisingly little political power in the world's most populous continent.Despite remarkable progress in the past 30 years in education, health and earning power, Asian women are shockingly absent from politics.

"It's the culture," said Diana Wong, deputy director of the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

In Indonesia, where the government controls the distribution of parliamentary seats, women hold only 12.2 percent of them. And that's the second-highest level in Asia, following China at 21 percent.

Women account for only 6.5 percent of parliamentary seats in South Asia and 8.2 percent in Southeast Asia and the Pacific - among the lowest levels in the world.

In Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan, women hold 1.6 percent of the parliament's seats, according to United Nations statistics. In Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka, where 86 percent of women can read and write, they account for only 5.3 percent of the seats in parliament. In the Philippines, a full decade after Corazon Aquino's "People Power" revolution, the number is 9.5 percent.

Like most of the women who have risen to prominence in Asian politics, Megawati owes her popularity more to her heritage than her sex.

The eldest child of Indonesia's charismatic first president, the late Sukarno, Megawati, 49, was known mainly as an unprepossessing housewife, mother of three and opposition backbencher until she entered the political limelight on Mother's Day, 1993, as head of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party.

"If she had appeared 10 or 20 years ago, she would have been crushed," said one of her advisers, Laksamana Sukardi.

When Megawati was ousted as party chief last month, however, the Sukarno aura helped set off waves of protests within the party and a massive confrontation, which in turn ignited the country's worst anti-government riots.

Fearing now for her political life, Megawati has taken her cause to Indonesia's courts, where she is challenging her ouster as opposition leader. Her lawyers say a party coup in June, which removed Megawati from office, was orchestrated by a government that fears her rise in popularity.

The first hearing of the case, however, was postponed last week for three weeks when the presiding judge failed to appear as he was said to have a toothache. Another judge read out a dentist's note to jeers in the courtroom and louder protests outside.

While Megawati stayed away from the court, hundreds of her supporters staged a rally on the streets outside, chanting "Life to Mega," until hundreds of heavily armed soldiers and police broke up the demonstration.

The court's ultimate decision could be crucial for Megawati's political future. If she fails to win back control of the Democratic Party, she may not be able to seek re-election to the national assembly next year or run as the first person ever to challenge Suharto in a presidential election, due in 1998, if he seeks a seventh five-year term.

While she will not declare her ultimate political ambitions - to do so could unleash Suharto's wrath - Megawati is seen as the only Indonesian capable of challenging the authoritarian president.

He wouldn't be the first Asian titan to fall to a daughter of destiny, as many of Asia's new female leaders are known. As young women, both Bhutto and Sheik Hasina Wazed, Bangladesh's new prime minister, took on military governments in the wake of their fathers' brutal deaths.

Sri Lanka's Kumaratunga, the daughter of two prime ministers, entered politics only when her husband was assassinated. In Bangladesh, Sheik Hasina rose to head the Awami League because she was one of only two survivors of a family massacre that included her father, the country's first prime minister. She won back her father's office last month by defeating the widow of a popular military president.

The presence of well-connected Asian women at the top, however, appears to have done little for other women hoping to climb the ladder.

Nearly 30 years after the late Indira Gandhi rose to power in India, Indian women last year held only 4.2 percent of ministerial posts. India's situation is so uneven that a new coalition government, which includes only one female cabinet minister, plans to introduce legislation to allocate to women 30 percent of all elected positions in the national parliament, state assemblies and village councils.

As India has learned, economic growth on its own does little to bring women into politics. In no part of Asia do women hold more than 10 percent of ministerial posts or government jobs.

In economically vibrant East Asia, women hold an astonishingly low 3.2 percent of cabinet posts - half the rate for South Asia, where female education levels are much lower. Women hold only 6.7 percent of Japan's parliamentary seats, a mere 2 percent of South Korea's and just 3.7 percent of Singapore's.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)