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Photo illustration by Emilio Rivera III for Asiaweek

The Vietnam War came to an end on April 30, 1975, when the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces. Two weeks earlier, on April 17, Khmer Rouge guerrillas had routed remnants of the Cambodian army to seize control of Phnom Penh. Indochina's twin conflicts were finally over -- with a death toll of around 4 million. The following pages take a look at those momentous events -- and ask how, 25 years later, Vietnam and Cambodia have fared.

After The Fall
The communist victories in Indochina set strategy in ASEAN nations for decades

For much of Southeast Asia, not least the five founding members of ASEAN, April 1975 brought the curtain down on one act of geopolitical drama and presaged the opening of another. The global balance of power was undergoing one of its great realignments, with Southeast Asia -- minus the United States in Indochina for the time being -- apparently fated to remain a cockpit for the sport of the Great Powers. After 1975, Moscow also increased its influence in the region through a strategic partnership with Hanoi symbolized by the Soviet navy's access to Cam Ranh Bay. China, on the other hand, was quick to counter with support for the Khmer Rouge, who were then set to begin their genocidal rule over Cambodia.

For many in the region, the ominous rattle of tottering dominoes filled the air. These nations' response to this threat was to shape Southeast Asia's contemporary history over the next decade. After the fall of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to communist forces in 1975, other governments tightened their grip on governance from the center, adopted a policy of rapprochement with former enemies and intensified regional cooperation.

Joel Nito for Asiaweek
Roberto R. Romulo, a Manila businessman, is chairman of the eASEAN Task Force and a former Philippine foreign secretary

This specter of the communist bogeyman gave legitimacy to "guided democracy" as the appropriate model of governance for Southeast Asia. Its practitioners claimed it was necessary to save their nations from those who would subvert and enslave them. The "iron rice bowl" became a respectable excuse for authoritarianism. Asia's unique brand of capitalism -- of government--directed support of the private sector -- emerged during this period. When Jakarta annexed East Timor, also in 1975, in part out of its belief that Marxists were about to seize control there, the United States chose to back President Suharto, as, indeed, it backed Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Two decades later, America would blame the financial crisis that decimated wealth accumulated during this period almost overnight, on this very same system that it tolerated earlier.

In the years after the fall of Saigon, a flurry of diplomatic efforts by Southeast Asian governments widened their political and economic engagements beyond their colonial masters and historical trading partners. One by one the governments of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (then Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) opened diplomatic and economic relations with Moscow, Beijing and their satellites in Eastern Europe and North Asia. The economic gains to ASEAN governments were for the most part disappointing because the exchanges were almost always lopsidedly in favor of the new trading partners, whose foreign trade was state--controlled.

The fall of Saigon also breathed new life into ASEAN, and the grouping attempted to bring some order to the regional stage by reaching out to a newly reunified Vietnam. This overture was initially rebuffed. (Thai troops and bases had been involved in support of the U.S. side in the war while the Philippines sent troops in a civic--action role.) Hanoi saw ASEAN as Washington's surrogate, while, ironically, the U.S. had scant regard for ASEAN's potential as a regional stabilizer. The grouping had never been ostensibly, and continues to officially deny being, a regional security organization. It preferred at first to approach the task of improving regional security by the pedestrian means of getting its members to converse with one another. When the grouping began in 1967, it looked to some modest forms of economic, social and cultural cooperation to engender trust and familiarity among the countries of the region.

This was hardly earthshaking stuff, but it was significant when you remember how fragmented the colonial experience and the Indochina conflict had left Southeast Asia in those years. Each Southeast Asian country had faced the difficulties of nation--building largely on its own, and several had already come to blows with their neighbors. ASEAN's founders steered clear of Cold War rhetoric. They observed all the usual nonaligned sensibilities. However, given the staunchly anti--communist nature of their governments at home, and the fact that most were either formal or de facto allies of the United States, there was no doubt that ASEAN was a concert of very like--minded, essentially pro--Western, conservative states.

The events of 1975 galvanized ASEAN. The management of regional political and security concerns could no longer be kept at arm's length. By then, it was clear to the grouping's members that they had to find strength in numbers and in solidarity if they were to avoid being cast helplessly once again into the maelstrom of Great Power rivalry. In 1976, ASEAN concluded two of its most important constituent agreements, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and the Declaration of ASEAN Concord. These gave the grouping a framework for regional political and security cooperation that remains operational today. Peaceful resolution of regional disputes, and non--interference in and respect for the sovereignty of states, were enshrined as the twin pillars designed to foster long--term peace among the nations of Southeast Asia.

Moreover, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation was made open to accession for all states in the region, not just to the original five ASEAN members. ASEAN obviously wanted to bury the hatchet with the Indochinese countries, for the sake of a larger vision that would gather all 10 nations of Southeast Asia into one, fraternal, regionwide community.

The Third Indochinese War, sparked by Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia, and further complicated when China and Vietnam went to war with each other in 1979, temporarily disrupted the realization of this vision. ASEAN met the issue head--on. Its long campaign in the United Nations to help restore Cambodian independence confirmed its diplomatic mettle and its ability to pursue a single--minded policy despite strategic differences among its members.

In the years after 1975, ASEAN also intensified economic cooperation. Preferential trading arrangements, joint ventures, industrial and functional cooperation were introduced. Though these programs did not go far, they encouraged habits of regional consultation and joint effort that made it possible to later launch the ambitious plans for the ASEAN Free Trade Area, an ASEAN Investment Area, subregional cooperation like the Mekong Basin initiative and, most recently, an eASEAN community.

Governments were not the crucial factor behind the economic growth. The grouping's economic successes stemmed from trade and investment expansion within its own region, and with other regions, which began in a big way during the latter 1970s. Regional integration and globalization propelled ASEAN's export-- and foreign investment--led development, giving the grouping a more solid economic base for greater regional cooperation to complement its political and diplomatic advances.

In recent times, the shock of the financial Crisis, and the tremendous transformation of Indonesia, have set the stage for another act in Southeast Asia's ongoing geopolitical drama. It will be as demanding on ASEAN as anything seen in 1975. Nine members of the grouping were buffeted by the Crisis: Vietnam joined in 1995 and Myanmar and Laos just as the meltdown began in July 1997. The Crisis shook regional self--confidence, and exposed a host of social ills that good times could tolerate, but which hard times will not. Absent any external or internal threats, leaders could no longer justify denying a little freedom here and there for the survival of the nation.

ASEAN's citizens are boldly pressing, and rightly so, for better governance, for greater respect for human rights and basic liberties, and for a less paternalistic relationship between the state and the individual. The cry of the hour in ASEAN is still national development, but this time it is for democratic development. The peoples of ASEAN expect the fruits of growth to be shared by all, and not just by a privileged and patronage--addicted few. The steady but irreversible empowerment of citizens, of civil society and of the private sector, is the main thrust of the next phase in the development of the grouping's countries.

Internal stability is still a goal of ASEAN, but it now has to be attained in a manner that rides more on the vigor and self--confidence of open societies than on the claustrophobia of national security--obsessed states. Even the hallowed tenet of non--interference in the internal affairs of states is being reinterpreted in lively discussions among the countries of the grouping. It was first tested with Cambodia's application for membership; eventually, in 1999, this nation made it the ASEAN 10.

In 1975 and the years immediately afterwards, ASEAN demonstrated a capacity for both pragmatism and vision, and for self--reliance as well as openness to others, in the management of regional problems. The circumstances now are vastly different. The regional cooperation required may be completely new. Yet the grouping must find the same internal fortitude to learn from adversity as it has done in the past. Only with such adaptability will ASEAN's aspirations for regional community be brought closer to realization.

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