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December 1996

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Southeast Asia in 1996

by Ronald D. F. Palmer


I. History of Recent Times

THIS IS WRITTEN IN 1996, one year after the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II was widely celebrated in the United States and Europe. The Asians marked the event with little interest and less pageantry.

  • Japan remains evasive and in a state of internal conflict about its role in World War II.

  • The Chinese communist party was locked in a deadly civil war with the Kuomintang government in 1945. Four years were to pass before the Peoples Republic of China was proclaimed and the Chiang Kai-Shek government fled to Taiwan.

  • Southeast Asia had braced itself in 1945 for the expected return of the Europeans and Americans, who had been sent running by the Japanese. The Southeast Asians had witnessed the replacement of white hegemony by the non-white rule of the Japanese.

Japan left political time bombs ticking in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia by encouraging declarations of independence. On the Malay Peninsula, Malay nationalism and anti-Chinese feelings were subtly and not-so-subtly encouraged. The British returned in 1945 and sought to "punish" the Malay for "collaboration" with the Japanese by rewarding the Chinese population for "loyalty" to the Crown. They announced a plan for a Malayan Union in 1946 which would have diluted Malay power and broadened and legitimated Chinese citizenship entitlements. The Malay reacted with unexpected political vigor, inconsistent with their apparent prewar lack of political interest. The British had to withdraw plans for the Malayan Union, create a Federation of Malaya, and set both Malaya and Singapore on the path to independence.

The French did not learn the lesson taught the British by their failure to anticipate nationalism through improvising an artificial union of the peoples on the Malay Peninsula. France ignored the emergent nationalism in Indochina and sought to establish a French Union dominated by Paris in which the Indochinese states would enjoy limited independence. The result was the first Vietnam War, which ended with French defeat in 1954.

The Philippines had already been promised independence by the United States in 1935. Loosening the shackles of American colonialism was a goal with which few Filipinos disagreed in 1945. The price of independence, which came in 1946, was agreement to a ninety-nine-year lease of Philippine bases by the United States and economic concessions that put American citizens on a par with Philippine nationals. Anti-bases sentiment fueled Philippine nationalism thereafter, giving it an inevitable anti-American slant. US bases were withdrawn from the Philippines only in 1992, putting US relations with the Philippines on a new and different course.

During World War II, Thailand had made whatever pro-Japanese adjustments were necessary to maintain its historic independence. While Japan still appeared to be winning, but quite early in the war, the Thai leadership foresaw the eventual defeat of Japan and did the necessary by subtle policy shifts to convince the United States that Thailand was really on the side of the Allies. In this the Thai were successful. The Thai goal always is to maintain their independence, and the United States needs to remember this as China becomes more powerful.

Another feature of recent history is the unfolding of the Cold War in Asia. Did it end in 1975 with the fall of Saigon? Or did it end in 1985 when Gorbachev became Soviet premier and signaled that the Soviet subsidy of Vietnam's adventure in Cambodia must be terminated? Or, finally, is the customary conclusion correct that the Cold War began collapsing with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990-1991? I favor 1985; when Vietnam lost its Soviet sponsor, the Cold War in Asia was over.

Present reality is conditioned, of course, by the rise of the formerly subject Southeast Asian nations to levels of dynamism unthinkable in the colonial era, when the per capita income of the subject peoples was under $100 per year. For example, Malaysia is the seventeenth largest trading partner of the United States; Thailand is the twentieth largest. Indonesia is rushing down the runway toward an economic takeoff that may rival that of the Republic of Korea in the late 1950s.



II. Present-Day Themes

Post-Westminster Authoritarianism

ONE THEME WE CAN IDENTIFY in the reality of the present is post-Westminster political development. This is evident in Malaysia and Singapore. The façade of Westminster parliamentary democracy remains in place, more or less, but it should be remembered that the British ran these colonies as de facto police states. Colonies were not charitable enterprises; their function was to make money for the colonial power. Authority was centralized in Government House in the hands of the high commissioner. Malay communalism became the font of political power in post-independence Malaysia. Despite it s socialist and multi-ethnic trappings, the reality of political power in Singapore was the communal control that the People's Action Party wielded through the seventy-seven percent Chinese majority in the state. Both nations were born in stressful conditions and economic democracy has taken precedence over political democracy. Both have suffered severe ethnic disturbances. Both remain keenly aware of the fragility of the structures which make up their states.


Post-Marxist-Leninist Régimes

European Marxist-Leninist socialism came to Indochina in the same intoxicating rush that brought European romanticism and Japanese and Chinese revivalism. This baffling mixture penetrated the many layers of awakening and modernizing Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian political culture. This modernization process was captured by the Comintern and put under Marxist-Leninist discipline and control.

Idealism was married to an implacably determined power-seeking organizational framework -- Vietnamese communism. Above all it had extraordinary organizational capability. What defeated France and the United States was Vietnamese communist politico-military administrative capability. Hanoi could issue orders and they would be obeyed anywhere in Vietnam; Saigon issued orders that were not obeyed in the city's suburbs.

Since 1975, the socialist Republic of Vietnam has been coping with the problem of attempting to adapt previously successful organizational methods that ran a garrison state to the mysteries of political and economic development of "normal" times. Vietnam is attempting to build a post-Marxist-Leninist state.

What about Cambodian Marxism-Leninism? That is not a serious question in today's Cambodia. Marxism-Leninism is as dead as Groucho and Harpo Marx. There is a struggle for power between ancient concepts of monarchical rule and the remnants of the corrupt régime installed by the Vietnamese. What will eventually emerge will be Cambodian, not Marxist-Leninist.

As for Laos, Marxism-Leninism never had more than shallow roots. The future of Laos is difficult to predict, but it surely will not become a Marxist-Leninist state.


Evolving Military Régimes

Everything must change, and the Indonesian military faces inevitable change in its role as the seventy-six-year-old President Suharto apparently prepares to run in 1998 for his seventh term in office. The army is said to be divided into "green," or Muslim-oriented factions, and "red and white," or nationalist, non-sectarian groups. It is not likely that a civilian will succeed President Suharto, but it seems clear that whichever general follows him as president will not be able to exercise the overwhelming authority that Suharto has enjoyed since 1968, when he assumed power in a civilian role (backed by the military). Some sort of coalition of military and civilian elements appears probable, and military power will be diluted. From this background the régime will evolve.

Burma's governing power must find a way to translate its military power into political legitimacy. Burma's models are Thailand and Indonesia. Both are likely to confront the Burmese military with the increasing necessity to form coalitions with civilians.

In both the Indonesian and Burmese cases, democracy as it is understood in the West will be slow in coming. However, one can predict that neither military régime will be able to avoid seeking greater civilian participation in governing.


Evolving Democratic Régimes

Perhaps Thailand has shown the way to democracy by encouraging the military to return to the barracks or to learn how to play a role in national life as civilians exercising non-military functions. Thailand was ruled from 1945 to 1973 by military dictatorships, followed by a three-year interlude of civilian control. There was military rule again from 1978 to the early 1990s. However, a military attempt to reassert control was rejected in bloody uprisings by civilians in 1993, and civilian authority has not been challenged since then. What appears to be happening is that political parties are taking on more importance and the parliament is playing a greater role in the political brokering process.

Thailand has had the great fortune of having a monarch who has played a historic role in the fifty years of his reign, a role that will put him on a level with his illustrious predecessors. The problems and prospects for the future role of the Thai monarchy will be discussed below. Suffice it to note at this point that the present Thai political stability and the tentative beginnings of modern democracy cannot be guaranteed.

History will record that the 1986-1991 administration of Philippine President Corazon Aquino restored balance and decency to Philippine political life. The turbulent 1969-1986 rule of President Ferdinand Marcos was an uneasy and unpredictable time. Certainly Mrs. Aquino faced great political difficulty in her time as president, especially from repeated military coup attempts. She prevailed, however, and left office with grace and dignity, turning power over to her successor, who took office in a calm atmosphere despite winning only a minority of the vote that was split between several candidates.

That successor, President Fidel Ramos, is making extraordinary efforts to overcome the entrenched economic power of a protectionist élite. The Philippines is enjoying economic growth, as well as political stability.


Regional Economic and Political Factors

The surging economic growth in Southeast Asia shows that the region today is one of the most dynamic areas of the world and a possible model for economic development elsewhere. Market economics has even won over the austere Vietnamese, who are eagerly seeking foreign investment from within the region and wherever else they can find it. Vietnam has much to learn about market economics, but it is now a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with headquarters at Jakarta; Vietnam's ASEAN partners can be expected to guide Vietnam toward the freedoms of the market place and the social contract that arises as a result.

ASEAN was formed in 1957 and will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary next year. It has been highly effective as a political instrumentality. ASEAN's task, however, is increasingly to demonstrate the same energy and wisdom in pursuit of regional economic objectives that it has shown in the political arena. A first priority is to move forward with the ASEAN Free Trade Association (AFTA), which requires the progressive lowering of tariff barriers. A second is to continue the building of AFTA while participating in the building of Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). These two objectives will sometimes be in conflict, as the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) has revealed. And ASEAN has set for itself yet another goal, that of building a security consultation arrangement around the concept of the ASEAN Regional Forum.


Extra-Regional Powers and Problems

The United States is still working out its post-Cold War role in East Asia. The Philippines bases are gone. Bases in Okinawa present problems. Nevertheless, the Southeast Asian states are unanimous in desiring a continued US security presence in the region. ASEAN states have made arrangements to accommodate US air and sea presence by making local bases and facilities available.

Japan has also made it very clear that it wishes the United States to maintain a robust military presence in the western Pacific, including maintaining forces on Okinawa.

Russia is not an actor in Southeast Asia at present, but its eastern region can be expected to to become more involved in the market economies of both Northeast and Southeast Asia.

China, which is slated to become the world's largest economy by 2020, is the most troublesome problem for Southeast Asian nations at the moment. Chinese actions in the South China Sea with respect to the Spratly Islands have been alarming and such initiatives have resulted in local reactions. The ASEAN nations not only have interests in the Spratly Islands (Vietnam also has an interest in the Paracels), but in addition the nations of Southeast Asia all have assumed great security responsibilities under the Law of the Sea régime; each nation with a coastline has to defend a 200-mile economic exploitation zone, as well as extensive air space. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore accordingly have purchased high performance aircraft and are building naval establishments which may include submarines. The Philippines intends to follow suit. Vietnam can be expected to modernize its air and naval forces in due course.

The message should be clear: The nations of Southeast Asia have the political will and the economic wherewithal to defend their territorial waters and air space. They will look to the United States to help them in that commitment.



III. Prospects country by Country

THIS SECTION ANALYZES EACH of the ten Southeast Asian nations in terms of political stability and economic prospects. The succession issue is addressed in each nation. These prisms will provide opportunities to reflect upon their prospects.

  • Brunei

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah presides over an absolute monarchy as the latest rule in an unbroken line of succession that goes back to the thirteenth century. He ascended the throne in 1968 and is likely to rule until he dies. There is little prospect for a change of régime. The United States has made an access arrangement with Brunei.

  • Burma

The military State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) released the winner of the 1991 presidential elections, Aung San Suu Kyi, from house arrest in 1995, but decreed that she could not lead the party she took to "victory" in the elections (the SLORC promptly annulled and ignored the electoral results). Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom of action, speech, and movement remain restricted at this writing. Recently, the SLORC decreed a new constitution specifically prohibiting her from becoming president.

Political stability depends on solidarity within the SLORC. Watch for factions developing in the military. If they should appear, leaders of these factions probably will seek civilian allies.

  • Cambodia

Norodom Sihanouk became king of Cambodia in 1940 as a result of French intervention. He was young and considered pliable. Others subsequently have made the mistake of underestimating Sihanouk. He dominated Cambodian politics until a CIA-supported military coup took place in 1973. The murderous Khmer Rouge soon ousted the maladroit military and the Red Nightmare ensued in the killing fields of Cambodia, lasting until December 1978. At that time, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and soon installed a puppet régime consisting of Khmer Rouge defectors. By 1985, international pressure and a US- and PRC-aided resistance, along with its own economic problems, caused Vietnam to reconsider its Cambodian adventure. Vietnam withdrew its forces, leaving behind its client régime of collaborators headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

In 1993, King Sihanouk reascended the throne following a UN takeover of the country, and following elections under UN auspices. Sihanouk's party won the elections handily and Hun Sen's party came in second. Sihanouk adroitly named his son, Prince Ranariddh, as first prime minister and Hun Sen as second prime minister. Hun Sen, however, has the advantage of leading a hard bitten nationwide organization, He has tried to push aside or intimidate the Sihanoukists, but King Sihanouk has invoked against him, with customary subtlety, his own charisma and political shrewdness, and the weight of tradition. A quiet, potentially deadly struggle for power is going on. Who will win? Will Prince Ranariddh succeed his father in a monarchical succession? Will Hun Sen be out-maneuvered by Sihanouk?

Political stability may be possible. Perhaps the parties will agree to disagree. Meanwhile, the market economy has made a large impact on Cambodia. People might be too busy making money to fight.

  • Indonesia

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 1997; Golkar, the official party, will win. A year later, in 1998, elected appointed officials, including military officers, will then constitute themselves the People's Constituent Assembly, which will reelect President Suharto to his seventh five-year term of office. He will be seventy-six in 1998.

As long as I am predicting, it seems a safe bet that the president after Suharto will be a general, a Javanese, and a Muslim. This person will have a less certain future than President Suharto because he will have less political power than Suharto was able to exercise. Military dominance of politics will erode and alliances with civilians may become essential. There should, however, be both political stability and strong economic growth.

Indonesia has an access agreement with the United States.

  • Laos

The Lao People's Revolutionary Party held its sixth party congress in late March 1996. The party appears en route to a future like that of Burma and Indonesia -- an authoritarian system in which the military exercises strong control over the political system. The eighty-year-old party president, Nouhak Phoumsavanh, is expected to step down in favor of Prime Minister Khamtay Siphandone. The prime minister is expected to be succeeded by either Khamphoui Keoboulapha, and economic technocrat and current deputy prime minister, or, more likely, Defense Minister Choomaly Sayasone.

Prospects are for an increasingly military-dominated régime. However, Laos has traditionally had a relaxed culture with relatively little violence. It is difficult to imagine Laos, which used to be called the Land of One Million Elephants, as a garrison state.

  • Malaysia

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Malay communal party which dominates the Malaysian political system, will hold its important party elections in November 1996. Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Muhammad is expected to be reelected UMNO party president and Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim will be elected his deputy. The UMNO president becomes, or remains in this case, prime minister. Anwar Ibrahim is both finance minister and deputy prime minister. His adherents are expected to win a majority of UMNO offices; they are impatiently awaiting their leader's accession to the top position.

They will have to wait for a while. The prime minister's UMNO-led National Front coalition won a resounding victory in the 1995 parliamentary elections, His term of office runs until 2000. Dr. Mahathir became prime minister in 1981 and he is preparing a great celebration in 1998 to mark the seventeen years of his administration. This celebration may suffice for him to declare his mission accomplished and then to step aside before 2000 to allow Anwar to take over.

  • The Philippines

President Fidel Ramos came to power in 1992, after the United States had dismantled its former installations at Clark Air Base, Subic Naval Base, San Miguel Naval Station, and other facilities, following the Philippine senate's historic vote in 1991 to end US base rights. Disruption of the bases arrangement also disrupted the cozy "special relationship" through which the United States had perceived that its interests were tied to those of the landed oligarchic Philippine élite.

Ramos thus, while forced to lead the Philippines into a new era of post-Cold War foreign policy uncertainty, was able to mount an offensive against a rather disoriented élite to attack economic privilege and to loosen the stranglehold major oligarchic families had over segments of the economy. A program of economic liberalization was launched to attack cartels and monopolies. President Ramos declared as a target "Philippines 2000," by which time the nation would join the Asian Newly Industrializing Economies (NIEs).

Sturdy growth rates of five percent have been achieved, but oligarchic resistance is strong and dogged and there are many problems to overcome, particularly in terms of a decayed and inadequate infrastructure. In a virtually revolutionary move, Ramos has thrown open infrastructure development to the private sector with foreign joint venture partners.

The Philippines had been dependent on the US military shield for its external defense, and now has to build a modern defense establishment, including naval craft and high-performance aircraft. Defense modernization has been budgeted at $2 billion. The Philippines has a claim on the Spratly Islands at Mischief Reef, which Chinese military forces have taken. The Philippines expect to develop force projection capabilities which will prevent or at least contest such takeovers in the future. Other security problems facing the Philippines are the continuing Muslim insurgency in the south and a plague of urban crime.

  • Singapore

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is recuperating from his second heart operation. His son's cancer (melanoma) is in remission. Goh Chok Chong is prime minister, but must operate in the now somewhat flickering shadows of these two men.

Lee Kuan Yew's generation fought the communists in the streets to win political power and then turned Singapore into an important economic presence. This aging generation is plainly concerned that the younger Goh Chok Tong generation may not be tough enough to run Singapore the way they did. This begs the questions of whether Singapore will need the kind of leadership in the future that it has had in the past. Perhaps not.

  • Thailand

The Thai king has been the guardian angel of Thailand for the past fifty years, but he is mortal. His son, the crown prince, does not enjoy the popular respect and high regard that his father does. Nevertheless, Thailand may not need for its future monarch to play as subtly activist a role as the present king has done. In any case, it appears that Thailand engages in the world of political parties, elections, parliamentary government, and money politics with great gusto.

The Thai economy has surged ahead vigorously. Thailand has been dependent on energy supplies from abroad, but the Triton-developed Thai-Malaysian joint oil exploitation venture in the South China Sea has located substantial deposits of natural gas. Thailand's share of the fuel will add renewed vigor to an already fast moving economy. One area in which the natural gas will be particularly helpful will be in the underdeveloped southern region toward the border with Malaysia. Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia are cooperating in the development of the so-called Northern Growth Triangle, which is designed to promote development in southern Thailand, northern Malaysia, and northern Sumatra.

  • Vietnam

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam faces many problems in transforming itself into a market economy while at the same time attempting to maintain authoritarian political and security controls. Vietnam became the seventh member of ASEAN in 1995 and is now firmly entangled in the East Asian trading system and the equally entangling consensual ASEAN political process.

Surely one of the most perplexing problems facing Vietnam is that a majority of its population is under twenty-one. That means the Vietnam War is ancient history to them. Moreover, they only became ten years old in 1985; they have matured in times that are profoundly different from those of the nation's leadership, which is between sixty and seventy years of age.

The past ten years have been highly eventful. In 1986, the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam broke with collectivism by introducing market incentives. The wartime political leadership was also retired in that year. The Seventh Party Congress legitimated the shift toward a market economy, but sought to maintain tight political controls. The Eighth Party Congress in June of 1996 endorsed continued change to make the economy more effective. The task of political control thus becomes even more difficult.

The Hanoi of 1996 is not about to become an Athenian democracy, but it is not the Hanoi of 1986 and certainly not that of 1976. The Saigon of 1996 seems to have kept the robust capitalist vitality it had in pre-communist days. Saigon never became Hanoi; rather, it seem more likely, in time, that Hanoi will resemble Saigon. This is the paradox of Vietnam.



IV. Prognosis

SOUTHEAST ASIA IS AN AREA of great promise, but the region lies on the periphery of China's orbit of power. If China is a good neighbor, everyone will prosper. If China is a bad neighbor, this will affect the region negatively and will present difficult options for the use, or non-use, of US power.


Author The author, career diplomat Ron Palmer, served as US ambassador to Togo, to Malaysia, and to Mauritius between 1976 and 1989 during his thirty-two-years in the Foreign Service. Ambassador Palmer now is associated with The George Washington University in Washington, D. C.

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