7, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 13 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK
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.
Photo illustration by Emilio Rivera III for Asiaweek
communist victories in Indochina set strategy in ASEAN nations for decades
By ROBERTO R. ROMULO
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.
Nito for Asiaweek
Roberto R. Romulo, a Manila businessman, is chairman of the
eASEAN Task Force and a former Philippine foreign secretary
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.
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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
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
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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November 30, 2000