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Letter from Niger, June 2002

U. S.-Philippine relations suffered in the post-Cold War l990s. The Philippine decision to reject renewal of U.S. base rights in 1991 led to the closing of the vast Clark air base and Subic naval base in 1992. Meanwhile, China began constructing facilities on Mischief Reef in the Philippine-claimed area of the South China Sea. Despite Philippine appeals for the United States to involve itself in the dispute, it declined. U. S. attention was of course focused on the Bosnian and Kosovo conflicts.

Meanwhile, Philippine efforts to deal with the insurgencies initiated by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1969, which the Moro Independence Liberation Front (MILF) joined in 1977 and the gangster-oriented Abu Sayyaf joined in 1986, faltered in Mindanao and the Southern Philippines. By 1999 the Manila Government welcomed the reestablishment of a military connection with the United States. A U. S.-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement was negotiated.

The Philippine hope was that the United States would not only resume its traditional role of providing for the external defense of the nation, but also provide military equipment to help in the fight against Muslim insurgent s. U. S. strategists hoped to regain the military flexibility that the Philippine basing connection had provided.

Underlying the Muslim insurgency in Mindanao is the demographic changes that began occurring in the United States’ 1898-1945 colonial rule. Christians were fifteen percent of the population of Mindanao in 1900. They are now eighty-five percent of the population.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was the first to declare support for the United States after September 11.

U. S.-Vietnamese relations were on hold for most of the 1990s. Conservative leaders were strongly opposed to economy-opening measures contained in the proposed U. S.-Vietnam Trade Agreement negotiated in 1999. Vietnam only signed the measure in July 2000. It preceded President Clinton's historic November 2000 visit to Vietnam.

Vietnamese society is a gerontocracy, that is, a government led by the old on the basis of seniority. The political system has been dominated by men in their seventies who gained their positions by orthodox adherence to communist party doctrine. They have doggedly resisted sharing policymaking responsibility with the rising generation. The war did end twenty-seven years ago, in 1975, and the majority of the population is now under twenty-five years of age. The next generation of leaders is waiting impatiently to take power. They have now been sufficiently exposed to the outside world to be increasingly aware that Vietnam lags behind in the r egion and in the world. However, change occurs slowly in Vietnam and the present system encourages corruption.

Despite emerging second to King Sihanouk's party in the 1993 UN-sponsored elections, the Cambodian Peoples Party of former Khmer Rouge leader Hun Sen has steadily expanded its power and Hun Sen has taken charge of the Cambodian political system. His effective use of intimidation and murderous force was demonstrated in 2001 preparations for the February 2002 local elections. Although there was some public optimism that elections were to be held at all, even perhaps flawed elections, there was little anticipation that Hun Sen would relax his authoritarian control.

Cambodia joined ASEAN in 1997 but has proved resistant to ASEAN efforts to promote democratization. Malaysia has become an important Cambodian trading partner.

Laos continued to be plagued by political infighting in 2001 caused by internal strife in the ruling Lao Peoples Revolutionary Party which took power in 1975. The party is dominated by older leaders opposed to political and economic reform. There are sub-groups with overlapping memberships composed of older members, younger members, pro-China versus pro-Vietnam members, and Northern versus Southern members. The result is policy immobility and stagnation. However, the pro-Vietnam faction appears to be growing in influence.

Laos joined ASEAN in 1998. It is the most backward of the ASEAN 10.

The State Peace and Development Council of Burma, a military junta, had been in power in 2001 for thirteen years. The military have actually ruled Burma since the 1962 coup of General Ne Win. The abortive 1990 elections won by Aung San Suu Kyi's party were annulled by the military. She has only recently been released from house arrest.

Burma was admitted to ASEAN in 1998 and Malaysia has actively sought to encourage the Burmese military leaders to open up the political system. Malaysian Tan Sri Razali Ali has headed a UN mission to encourage political reform, including providing a political role for Aung San Suu Kyi. Ironically, the Burmese are reportedly studying the authoritarian system of Malaysian Dr. Mahathir as a possible model for change.

Meanwhile, Burma has been under U. S. and EU sanctions and has had to turn to China for support. Chinese commercial and military ties with Burma have flourished. China's Yunnan Province has become Burma's largest trading partner. Mandalay now has a large population of Chinese traders. China views Burma as its economic gateway to Southeast Asia.

The Burmese leadership is reportedly nervous over its growing relationship with its huge, and eager, neighbor. This may provide some momentum for Burma to improve its relations with nations which have imposed sanctions.

The city-state was hard hit by the decline in regional trade that resulted from the 1997 financial crisis and suffered a severe economic contraction. However, its strong financial and political institutions proved adequate to handle the recession.

Singapore continued and its close security relationship with the United States. Its deepened its harbor facilities to accommodate U. S. aircraft carriers denied access to Philippine basing.

Brunei's absolute monarchy suffered embarrassment by the revelations of financial mismanagement by Prince Jeffri. Otherwise, Brunei remained peaceful and stable.

The regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) founded in 1967 grew in effectiveness through the 1970s and 1980s but proved ineffective in the financial crisis of the late 1990s. It had deliberately avoided building a strong administrative and bureaucratic like that of the European Union for fear of diluting national sovereignties, relying instead for executive direction by annual meetings of foreign ministers. This fact and the fact that Indonesia's stabilizing "Hidden Hand" leadership was removed because of domestic political turmoil rendered ASEAN incapable of developing coherent policies to confront the crisis.

These are some of the external aspects of 1990 developments. The urban areas of the region became connected, however gingerly, with the world economy. In most cases though surging urban populations consisted of relatively recent rural migrants. Education was more widely available but opportunities for higher education were limited by lack of faculty and facilities and was generally unable to accommodate more than ten percent of secondary school graduates.

Urban populations were, however, dwarfed by rural populations where the lives of people were still deeply influenced by traditional political, economic, social, and religious norms, particularly in heavily Muslim areas of southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Mindanao and the Southern Philippines. These Islamic regions had a sense of being pushed to the sidelines by secular governments. Rigorous forms of Islam, emphasizing Muslim identity, were a growing reaction to the perceived assault of modernization and materialistic globalization.

These factors and others I have not mentioned were present on September 11, 2001. The U. S. declaration of war on terrorism has refocused America’s attention on Southeast Asian national security issues. However, the local security environment has changed substantially since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Communism was an external influence. The rise of the concept of an Islamic ummah or community stretching potentially from the Muslim provinces of Southern Thailand, through Malaysia, Singapore, the Southern Philippines and Indonesia is homemade.

July 9, 2002

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