The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
Thirty years ago, when I first traveled through Southeast Asia, there was everywhere an exhilarating atmosphere of political adventure and zeal. The conviction that justice was on the side of the rebellious and retribution the foregone fate of the outdated colonialists was infectious. Whatever the imperialist rearguard actions, however long they might last, it seemed apparent that these first-stage fights for freedom would succeed, no matter how complicated and difficult they might prove to be or how disorganized the nationalist elements were.
But with the exception of the North Vietnamese, guided by the almost metaphysical force and genius of Ho Chi Minh, the most experienced revolutionary leader in the region and at once the best-trained Communist and most ardent nationalist, the Southeast Asian revolutionary movements soon revealed an increasing ideological factionalism and a lack of cohesive leadership. There were charismatic men, such as the young Aung San in Burma, and highly educated and sophisticated Socialists such as Soetan Sjahrir in Indonesia, but they were passing figures on the historic stage. Except for Ho, there were no Titos, with whom he has often been justifiably compared, and no other Communist figures who had the qualities of leadership and organization of European leaders, even those who were Soviet puppets. The non-Communists, while often better schooled, were even less sure of themselves and of the direction they wanted the nationalist movements to take. It was thus no accident that the pattern of nationalist development was chaotic and violent at the outset, and erratic and frequently stultifying afterward, with the result that brilliant demagogues like Indonesia's Sukarno, or colorless but crafty generals like Burma's Ne Win, took over their countries and ran their own revolutions, or counterrevolutions, which were autarchic and often became despotic.
Today, after the traumatic experience of the Vietnam War-which still continues but without the shattering impact of American participation-Southeast Asia is once again in a state of transition. The trend toward authoritarianism, in varying degrees, is not only still predominant, but has become more pervasive. In every country, with the tentative exception of Thailand, that early revolutionary zeal I and others felt and vicariously shared has lost its thrust and been replaced by different forms of guided democracy that are far more guided and frequently misguided than democratic. Even the spirit of nationalism, though still alive in some countries and espoused sporadically by new student movements and other small opposition elements, has been sullied by time and events. As the world has become more complicated and burdened, in the last few years particularly, by mounting economic and social problems, politics as such has lost the dynamic appeal it once had; beset by personal woes and given little real opportunity to express their free opinions and take part in the political process, the racially mixed populations of most of the Southeast Asian nations are drifting in a political and social void, while economically they remain for the most part immersed in poverty. By default or otherwise, they have watched sung or unsung leaders usurp the prerogatives of power, while the revolution of rising expectations has benefited the privileged rather than the needy.
Looking back, a number of related questions may be asked that are of historical interest and also bear directly on the future. Perhaps the most important of these concern the American role in Southeast Asia since the end of the Second World War, and specifically in Vietnam, where it is often forgotten we began to play a part as long ago as 1944. At that time, on a limited but symbolically significant scale, we helped Ho and his anti-Japanese Vietminh partisans through the Office of Strategic Services. I felt then, and still do, that after Ho and his men captured Hanoi in August 1945, and again when he traveled to France in the summer of 1946, the United States would have been well advised to test his nationalism and his willingness to accept help from the West; staunch Communist that he was, he might have been "pre-Titofied" and a unified Vietnam could have become the Yugoslavia of the East. True, only the French could have made the decisions that would have permitted this result; yet the failure to adopt a firm posture of our own and to exert the strongest possible American influence to this end remains to me a disastrous mistake.
Instead we chose to support the French in their eight-year misbegotten effort to cling to Vietnam, and then fell into our own quagmire. After the Second Vietnam War had begun in 1959 or so, the United States moved in 1961 and finally in 1965 to massive involvement, with the declared aim of preventing not only the capture of South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese but also the spread of Communist insurgency, promoted chiefly by the Chinese, throughout Southeast Asia.
Now it may be asked-what was the catalytic effect of that over-involvement? Beyond the fact that our misadventure in Vietnam was a highly destructive failure, both militarily and politically, in terms of Indochina, with the likelihood of the eventual domination of all of that area by Hanoi today as strong or stronger than ever, did the Vietnam experience have any important political, social and economic influence on the other nations of the region, or was what has taken place in those countries more or less inevitable anyway? Did we initially misread the Chinese threat, or at best overreact to it, and confuse it with the more limited North Vietnamese expansionist intentions? And, finally, what impact did the Vietnam experience have not only on American policy in Asia but on the capacity of the Southeast Asian nations to at least comprehend the meaning of representative or responsive government, to cooperate with each other, and to make fresh adjustments of their own to the Communist powers, to Russia as well as to China, to the United States, to Japan, and, to a lesser extent, to Europe?
To place the issues in a larger historical context, it is important to remember that there was little or nothing in the history of these countries, or pre-nation colonies, even in their earlier episodic and often heroic struggles against the imperialist motherlands, to warrant the supposition that when they finally won their independence they would develop into Western-style democracies. Put differently, there were ample historical grounds to conclude that authoritarianism was a natural phenomenon in the area, dating back to pre-colonial times, when religious and racial movements came and went, small wars took place, dynasties rose and fell, commerce developed, but for the most part, with occasional benevolent exceptions, power was effectively held in the hands of a few and carefully dispensed among relatively small groups of wealthy retainers and controlled administrators. When the imperial powers arrived, they simply superimposed their own systems and laws on the cultures and civilizations that existed before and, for their own economic purposes, created new mechanisms of authoritarian rule.
In the Second World War, the Japanese became the new imperialists. Lacking any political comprehension of the Southeast Asian nations and forced to fight a long and bitter defensive struggle against the belatedly aroused Allies, they ruled cruelly and ineffectively. As for the Allied powers, their postwar aims and ambitions were often unclear and differed from each other. The Americans, with no colonial history on the Southeast Asian mainland, were already committed before the war to granting their island ward, the Philippines, its independence, and did so, perhaps too quickly, in 1946. The British moved swiftly to reimpose their rule, and then almost as quickly set Burma free, with Malaya and Singapore following more gradually. The French left no doubt during the war, as the Vichy adjunct regime in Indochina demonstrated, that they would do their utmost to return and reestablish their control. The Dutch, having helped produce the best crop of intellectual nationalists and revolutionists by giving them educational opportunities in Holland, fought a peculiar verbal running battle with themselves after the war about how far and how fast to go in granting the Indonesians their freedom, and, finally, after four years of bickering and considerable fighting, gave in and also withdrew from the scene.1
Rather ironically, given their lack of perception of the situation, the Japanese played an unconscious role in stimulating wartime and postwar nationalism. The sudden cruel imposition of a new imperialism, at the hands of a self-styled Asian superpower, aroused in Southeast Asian leaders an anger greater than had ever been felt by their predecessor native heroes of the sporadic rebellions harshly crushed by Western overlords. These leaders became more intensely nationalist, and more determined than ever to win their independence at once when the war was over. At the end, the Japanese sought in some cases, most notably in Indonesia, to encourage rebellion against the Western rulers in what amounted to a kind of premature vague perception of a new pan-Asianism. And just as ironically, the returning Westerners, perplexed and confounded by the sudden surge of nationalist movements when the war ended, used Japanese troops in some places, such as Indochina, to help them "maintain order" as they sought to buy time and sort out their options.
The sudden end to the war, and the state of confusion in which Southeast Asia found itself, had various different effects on the newly emerging nations. The Philippines used their overnight independence carelessly and recklessly, garishly imitating American democratic forms, and if they demonstrated some capacity for responsive self-government it was not enough to avoid the rapid growth of a new overweening Filipino oligarchy. Indonesia experimented briefly with parliamentary rule before succumbing to Sukarno's dictatorship. The shaky federation of sultanates the British left behind in Malaya went through a long revolutionary struggle against the Communists which, with the help of returning British troops, they eventually won. After that, a newly independent and invigorated Malaya joined with Sarawak and Sabah, in Borneo, and briefly with Singapore, to form Malaysia. Burma, after one of the area's more salutary periods of parliamentary government, was beset by tribal and Communist rebellions and fell under military dictatorship. The Indochina peninsula continued to be wracked by civil strife between the Communists and the non-Communists. In the early 1950s the French did nothing to create the conditions that could have helped the South Vietnamese survive. When they were pushed ignominiously out of the Indochina picture in 1954, the United States supported Ngo Dinh Diem as its nationalist protagonist in South Vietnam. For two years Diem loomed as a possible solution and savior of his country, but then, under the increasing mystical influence of his nefarious brothers, particularly Ngo Dinh Nhu and Nhu's wife, he too slid into dictatorship. As for Thailand, the only country in the area that never came under Western imperialism, it sporadically and unsuccessfully flirted with constitutional rule but continued for the most part to be run by a military dictatorship under a traditional and respected monarch.
On the basis of this spotty record during the first postwar phase in Southeast Asia-from 1945 to the early 1960s-it was easy to conclude that nationalism, by itself, had proved an ineffective and insufficient political cause or instrument. Once the early revolutionary imperative faded, it was difficult if not impossible to sustain and hold together governments that could rule on any broad popular foundations. National assemblies established on the basis of hodgepodge constitutions containing bits and snatches from various Western democracies soon disintegrated into generally useless debating forums, or simply became a convenient means for the ruling few-Sukarno, Diem, Sihanouk in Cambodia, and others-to put up false democratic fronts while they made their own decisions with the help of small inner groups of relatives and advisers. Elections held from time to time offered a pretense of public participation in government-they invariably impressed foreigners more than the natives-but they cannot be said to have inculcated any real sense of democracy among the people, and they certainly did not give a reasonable share of power to the people. There was no intention on the part of those who held the reins of power to share it in the first place, and if a popular consensus was sometimes sought it was invariably for the sake of consolidating the position of those on top and serving as a sounding board for the public expression of their views on domestic and foreign affairs. Sukarno was the supreme master of this tactic, which he developed into a fine art, and in his own unique way so was Sihanouk.
Yet to judge the inability of popular nationalist sentiment to sustain itself and to create more equitable societies as a "failure of nationalism" may be too harsh, given the lack of experience of the Southeast Asian nations and peoples. Perhaps the early postwar euphoria misled all of us, participants and observers alike, and too much may have been expected. On top of that, it was surely not easy for the disparate countries of the region-a disparity too often lost sight of-to plot their separate courses, let alone a collective one after they were each granted their independence. Nation-building in the underdeveloped world is at best a hazardous process. To make things more difficult, after 1954, when the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was peremptorily established under the dominant influence of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a zealous crusader against communism, the Chinese-American cold war was superimposed on the region, forcing the various countries to make an additional adjustment to that power conflict. The SEATO objective of safeguarding the area from the further spread of communism by forming a rather loose alliance of Western and Asian nations, including two of the former continental imperial powers, France and Great Britain, was never, in fact, very well understood even by most of the participants, or certainly understood differently by each of them, though the pact ultimately became the oft-cited basis for American armed intervention in Vietnam.
If one considers Southeast Asia to have been passing through its first phase of transition in the years between 1945 and the early 1960s, the fairest conclusion that can be reached is that the pattern of development was natural enough, but still disappointing. Development is here used in its various meanings. Perhaps the trouble was that no one, including the still relatively few concerned Americans, had a properly conceived appreciation or comprehension of what the countries of the region needed most, which was economic and social tutelage and guidance.
Surely the path was wide open to reduce poverty and increase economic participation in a host of ways-land reform, carefully guided capital investment for the development of natural resources, the planned growth of labor-intensive industry, the creation of wider educational opportunities, and administrative and bureaucratic reforms and reorganization. Yet efforts in such directions never got started, or if they did they bogged down in the face of internal inertia and class conflicts. Even the "benevolent dictators" like Sukarno and Sihanouk, who made much of their popular appeal, operated for the most part through bread and circuses rather than through serious efforts to get at the roots of economic backwardness and meet the demands of their emerging and overpopulated societies.
If nationalism had been the fuel of independence, the engine it served was not ready to run on that alone, at least not for very long, and the motor soon broke down, without any mechanics available to fix it. The loss of revolutionary purpose consequently encouraged the growth of authoritarianism. What might have been more rational revolutionary goals were ignored or forgotten, or obscured in chauvinism and rhetoric.
The direct American role in the Second Vietnam War, and the effect it had on the rest of Southeast Asia, should properly be divided into three periods. The first of these began in 1961, when the United States increased its economic and military assistance and rapidly built up its advisory role in support of Diem. This demonstrated that we were genuinely concerned about the spread of Communist influence not only in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina but also in Thailand and elsewhere in the region. As this aid increased, and was often misused, we showed our further concern by encouraging and then supporting the coup against Diem and Nhu in November 1963. Unfortunately, the illusion that our backing of the coup demonstrated our interest in substantial reforms in South Vietnam was quickly destroyed by our poor response to the chaos that set in afterward. We lacked not only post-coup planning but, as events unfolded, any clear understanding of the complicated politics of South Vietnam.
Granted the fact that the South Vietnamese are extraordinarily and perhaps congenitally divisive, we either should have used the leverage we had to force reforms more strongly, or, once it became obvious that the Vietnamese were incapable of putting their house in order and thus fighting a successful counterinsurgency war against the Communists, reduced our aid and certainly not become more militarily involved ourselves. And, at this point, if we had decided to regard the rest of Southeast Asia as a vital concern to the non-Communist world, we should have broadened our regional approach and policy more sophisticatedly and effectively.
Instead, having given up any real hope of internal reform through the revolving-door governments of 1963-65, we decided to fight a bigger war nonetheless. Thus a second phase began in early 1965, with the start of bombing the North and the dispatch of the first contingent of American Marines to Danang. By mid-1965, our direct participation included large-scale ground forces-in effect attempting to substitute American power for local weakness and incapacity.
In the end, this was probably the most disastrous American decision of the century. At the time, however, it did produce a period of euphoria among non-Communists not only in Vietnam but in Southeast Asia generally. There is little doubt that in mid- and late 1965 only massive American intervention kept the Communists from cutting South Vietnam in two across the central highlands to the coast-thus confounding what must have been strong hopes in Hanoi of an early collapse of resistance by Saigon, and exerting a psychological impact throughout the area.
One of the more fascinating ramifications concerned Indonesia. The abortive Communist coup in Indonesia at the end of September 1965 was prompted by many factors, including the Indonesian Communists' belief, based on considerable evidence, that Sukarno was about to die, and their conviction, based on considerably less evidence, that the generals were about to mount a coup of their own against them. A third factor was the influence of the Chinese Communists in Peking, who by then were deeply committed to Hanoi's cause in Vietnam. According to the best evidence I was able to gather two years later, Peking did indeed play a role in inspiring Aidit and his fellow Communists in Indonesia to move swiftly and, as it proved, prematurely and disastrously-the Communist plan had originally been to work through Sukarno and to defer any outright takeover of power till perhaps 1970. With the Vietcong facing an obvious setback in Vietnam, Peking apparently felt that a Communist victory in Indonesia, containing nearly half of Southeast Asia's then quarter-billion population, was of paramount importance, and they made this point to Foreign Minister Subandrio of Indonesia and to other top-ranking Indonesian officials who visited China in the months before the coup.2 Had the Indonesian Communists waited, they might have won out, but I doubt it. Among other things, they had grossly overrated their mass base of support, as that blunt and wily Russian, Nikita Khrushchev, had warned them during his visit there in 1960.
Between 1965 and 1968, as the Vietnam War raged violently and indecisively, the nations of Southeast Asia watched with mixed feelings. Thailand, the most immediately concerned neighbor, with which the United States had a private pact superimposed on top of the SEATO agreement, cast its lot firmly with the Americans, and provided air bases for our planes bombing both North and South Vietnam. Elsewhere, the bombing of North Vietnam had a certain shock effect throughout the area, dating back to our use of atomic bombs against Japan in the Pacific War. Here, once again, was a Western nation mounting a huge aerial attack against Asians that many of them doubted, justifiably or not, would ever be applied against Europeans. Nevertheless, the consensus of most Asian leaders with whom I spoke during these years, notably Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, was that our strong support of the South Vietnamese within South Vietnam was justified because the threat of Communist expansionism was real.
Lee in fact became the prime exemplar and spokesman in Southeast Asia of the "time gained" theory-that our involvement in Vietnam was giving the other nations of the region time to strengthen themselves in all ways, politically, socially and economically. (It should also be said that Singapore, particularly, benefited economically from the war, exporting steel products and other materials to Vietnam.) This theory was also set forth by a number of American officials, who hoped and came to believe that the Vietnam War would, at the very least, spur the Southeast Asian countries to stand on their own feet and to cooperate with each other, so that they would become impervious to communism. Some felt that more democratic governments would develop, but the more realistic officials, in Washington and Asia, simply thought in terms of a stronger bulwark against communism in the area.
This early period of the "time gained" theory did, in fact, have some salutary effects. In Singapore, Lee and his ex-Marxist cohorts demonstrated, somewhat to the amazement of their Malaysian neighbors, that the small island republic could survive and prosper as a unique Asian entrepôt and emporium, with ample opportunities for investment, while at the same time serving as an example of local reform, especially in housing development. Malaysia, oddly bifurcated as it was, prospered economically, and the amiable Tunku Abdul Rahman emerged as a genuine father-figure capable of holding together the tenuous racial structure of the country. In Indonesia, the initial impact of the victory of Suharto and his fellow generals over the Communists, and his subtle handling of the eclipse of the ill Sukarno, seemed a talisman of hope for economic and political recovery from the chaos of the Sukarno years. In the Philippines, the election of Ferdinand Marcos in 1965, and his early program of "rice and roads," seemed for a time like another bright new chance.
But then, in January 1968, came the Communist Tet offensive in Vietnam, followed by their costly May and August attacks. While they suffered a military defeat, they won a political victory which ultimately led to President Johnson's withdrawal from the American political scene and to our final realization that the Vietnam War was a mistake and that we should reduce our support. The significance of the Tet offensive was area-wide. It showed that the Americans were not invincible, that we were indeed fighting the wrong kind of war in Vietnam, that we had probably overrated the Chinese threat of a wider revolution, or that, at best, we could do little about it if the concerned nations, especially Thailand, did not rally themselves more effectively and strengthen their own counterinsurgency efforts. Moreover, the events of 1968 raised doubts in the United States about the importance of Southeast Asia in the worldwide power struggle. If the viability of the region remained one factor in the Asian equation, it no longer loomed as dominant as it had earlier. And by the same token, the likely paramountcy of North Vietnam in the Indochina area no longer was regarded as the disaster it once was.
The third phase in American involvement in Vietnam began in 1969 with the clear-cut decision to begin a gradual American withdrawal, albeit at a slow pace and with ill-conceived intervening decisions in Cambodia and Laos that deepened the involvement of both countries in the overall war, making it truly one for all of Indochina. And this third phase was associated with a new period of transition in Southeast Asia. As the reality and prospect of American protection receded, it was in effect a time of testing of the past-if indeed time had been gained through the American holding action in Vietnam, what had been done with that dearly purchased period of grace?
How have the nations of the area evolved over the last five years? The answer, unfortunately, is "not very well." Not only has the trend toward authoritarianism been accelerated, but the performance of Southeast Asian governments in working for their people has on the whole been ineffective.
I cannot myself separate these results from the American political performance in South Vietnam itself. In 1966 and 1967 there were at least gestures toward democracy at the national level. But from 1968 on, the United States seemed to acquiesce in, even to encourage, increasingly dictatorial and repressive government by the Thieu regime-so that by the 1971 election it was in practice hopeless to expect an opposition to contest against Thieu. Certainly the failure of the United States to bring democracy to Vietnam, or even to build a potentially non-Communist revolutionary base there, did not encourage the evolution of democratic rule elsewhere in the region.
This broader failure to move toward political democracy-making it progressively easier for authoritarianism to consolidate itself, by purpose or default-can be attributed to various factors. Most important, perhaps, was the lack of political education and development at the lower levels, in the rural villages, where religion and race often dominated, or where local leaders simply served as the henchmen of the pyramidal hierarchy through districts and provinces to national capitals. The older tradition of village democracy, which had been a powerful factor in several of the countries, seemed to fade away, particularly as the power of the military increased, which in most of the countries was the case. A second factor precluding political development was the lack of freedom given to such professional bodies as farmers' and workers' unions and popular organizations of any kind to emerge as nuclei for new political parties. It is significant that the Communists in the various nations of the region, particularly in Vietnam, have always placed great stress on the development of many kinds of local organizations, even religious ones, and have built up the overall strength of their movements accordingly.
In many ways, the most disappointing nation in the area has been Indonesia. Despite the economic recovery made by the Suharto regime when it consolidated itself after the failure of the 1965 Communist coup-a feat accomplished largely by a brilliant group of young economists and by the availability of sustained foreign aid eventually totaling approximately four billion dollars-Suharto, a highly cautious man, moved far too slowly to build a new political base and create a political élan in the country to replace the tired chauvinism of Sukarno. As I wrote in 1969:
It was one thing, as Suharto said, to want to avoid a recurrence of the old political styles and formulas, but it was something else to stifle indefinitely the development of new political forms and to seek to contain political activity in the claimed paramount interest of balanced budgets and financial solvency.3
In particular, the Suharto regime failed to "harness or integrate the so-called Generation of 1966 [which had helped him gain power] and give its members a sense of useful participation in the new scheme of things."4
This neglect or subjugation of politics has continued ever since, and it was bound to engender a potential explosiveness which sooner or later would make itself felt. It did so in January 1974: fresh student rebellions directed on the surface against the new Japanese economic imperialism-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was then visiting the country-were in fact far more an expression of the smoldering discontent over the failure of development and the inability of the technocratic planners in Jakarta, and of the military-dominated regime in the field, to implement the widely proclaimed social and economic plans, particularly in the rural areas, which are as badly off as ever. Very little of the vast amount of foreign assistance-now tapering off because of foreign investment and above all the income from oil-has done anything to help the poor. With the perversion of development and the growth of new urban-rural cleavages, corruption on a massive scale has now affected the entire national fabric; petty bribery on the lowest levels is as common as large payoffs to high officials for deals involving millions of dollars. Unfortunately, foreigners in major investment enterprises have accepted this as a "necessary evil" if they want to do business in Indonesia. The new imperialism, here as elsewhere in Southeast Asia today, has thus become a joint venture between rich officials and outside entrepreneurs, and corruption has become a way of life far beyond what it was in colonial times.
Gradually, over the last five years, as the power of civilian reformers waned, the military regime has consolidated itself and at the same time developed its own factional problems. Inevitably this pattern, which has many historical precedents elsewhere, has now led to a thorough crackdown on dissent, to the jailing or silencing of reform-minded critics, including the liberal press and some of Indonesia's most prominent intellectuals. The best of the old political breed, the secular Socialists and the religious Socialists of the Masjumi party, both of which were banned by Sukarno but had hoped to resurrect themselves, were never allowed by the new regime to reemerge. Instead, once he had done away with the political structure created by Sukarno, in which three parties, the Nationalists, the conservative Muslims, and the Communists had predominated, Suharto created two new political groupings, one an amalgam of Muslim elements and the other a secular one, both of which are essentially leaderless and lack any real ideology and programs. Neither represents a threat to Golkar, the Army's own political party, a loose, predominantly Javanese coalition of so-called "functional groups," primarily professional men and soldiers, which exercises machine-type control down to the villages and seems destined to maintain its majority indefinitely, unless the new military rivalries and the rising social discontent sparked by the students create a fresh revolutionary outburst. Such a development, which is by no means to be ruled out, could be healthy; it could also play into the hands of the Communists, whose remnants have been fragmented and driven underground but could then revive.
In Indonesia, then, the story has been one of lost opportunities, of a regime that probably had to be military for a time after the preceding chaos, but that has become ever narrower in its political base and ever less concerned for the mass of the Indonesian people. In the Philippines, it has been a different but equally disappointing story, involving the outright rejection of democratic forms that had operated for 25 years.
There were many things wrong with Philippine democracy, including its blatant emotionalism, its political charlatanism, and the overall failure, after many years of rotating-door elections costing huge amounts of money, to bring any benefits to the people of that island archipelago. It remains highly doubtful, however, whether President Marcos' authoritarian New Society is a responsible alternative. There is, to be sure, more law and order, some signs of a beginning effort to get land reform instituted, at least for the rice lands if not for the wealthy sugar plantations, and a general improvement in bureaucratic efficiency, but these benefits scarcely compensate for the manifest lack of freedom. The fact that, after independence, Filipinos often profligately misused their liberties, and that economically the country needed a severe shaking up to reduce the endemic corruption and distribute the wealth more evenly, cannot excuse the way Marcos violated the nation's democratic tenets by establishing his virtual one-man rule.
He could have sought and probably obtained sufficient emergency powers from the old, now-disbanded legislature. Instead he chose the charade of creating "citizens assemblies" in the barrios to support a crude martial law takeover, thus destroying overnight the entire legal framework of constitutional democracy. The press, while admittedly too flagrant in its democratic heyday, has been sadly muzzled, many of Marcos' political opponents are still in jail, and no political process at all has been permitted other than that dictated by Malacanang Palace, whose tenants, Marcos and his wife Imelda, are the new rich oligarchs.
While the Philippine army and constabulary do not represent the political force the military does in Indonesia, they nevertheless have a dominant and pervasive police function, and for the past year have had their hands full dealing with two armed rebellions-the still small but resurgent Communist movement of the New People's Army in Luzon and on some of the other islands, and the separatist revolt of the Muslims in Mindanao and the lesser chain of southern islands. If successive governments run by Catholics had paid more attention through the years to the economic and social problems of the Muslims, the increasingly serious racial war in the south could have been avoided. Now this exploding rebellion is encouraged by Sabah and perhaps, more secretly, by extremist Muslim elements in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, as well as by some Arab nations, especially Libya. As this is written, efforts are under way to solicit the aid of more realistic heads in both Malaysia and Indonesia to help mediate the conflict. But in spite of this and Marcos' amnesty offers, the separatist revolt does not seem to me to be containable for long unless Manila undertakes a radical program of reform to pacify the nation's large Muslim minority, including some amelioration of the Christian land-grabbing in the Muslim areas that has been increasing for years.
There is more to it than that: in many ways the Muslims of the south look to their Muslim brethren in nearby countries rather than to Manila for spiritual and political encouragement and guidance. Ultimately, it may well prove impossible for the two racial elements in the Philippines to live together peacefully under the circumstances of the bitterness their historic struggle has provoked. This racial crisis; the still rampant corruption encouraged for so long by American postwar carpetbaggers and recently by Japanese investors; the whole unrealistic mechanism of Marcos' dictatorship and the latent violence that threatens it; the continuing urban-rural social and economic disparities that have kept the country, despite its resource advantages, from any fundamental development progress-all point to the conclusion that the Philippines has not yet had its real revolution. In a way, the nation is an example of nationalism manqué, and what Marcos has done is simply to provide a proscriptive hothouse imitation of what he likes to represent as peaceful, ideological revolution. At some point, despite the easy-going ways of the Filipinos, the underlying explosive social and economic discontent will burst forth. The recent outspoken criticism by prominent Catholic leaders is a sign of this discontent, but it will take time to fructify and to generate a new serious political movement capable of dealing with the multiple problems of dictatorship and the Communist and Muslim rebellions.
Malaysia, which became a country in spite of itself, spanning water and blending a colorful but diffuse racial mix of slightly more Malays than Chinese, a minority of Indians, and the variegated tribal races of Sarawak and Sabah, is on the one hand an economic success story and on the other a Balkan-type tinderbox. After being put together like a jigsaw puzzle in the 1960s by the British, it survived the expulsion of Singapore and then, six years ago, in the spring of 1969, the bitter race riots between Malays and Chinese that came close to tearing the major part of the geographically split country apart. It remains a tribute to Tun Abdul Razak, perhaps the cleverest statesman in Southeast Asia today, and to the gentler image of his predecessor, Abdul Rahman, that the riots were subdued and that Razak was able to pursue his objective of providing greater economic and social benefits for the Malay bumiputras (sons of the soil) while controlling but still encouraging the successful enterprise of the Chinese and the Indians.
For the past several years Malaysia has enjoyed a boom from its wealth of riches, mostly rubber and tin and newly developed high-grade oil; its second Five Year Plan, which runs out in 1975, has been a considerable success, even though income inequalities and injustices favoring the Chinese have continued. Now, however, amid inflation, there are fresh signs of an economic slowdown as export prices, especially of rubber, have dropped. In addition to reviving racial animosities, this has spurred serious student disorders on behalf of the poor and shaken the country's still fragile stability. The latest riots, in December 1974, were put down harshly by Razak's police, but the student ferment will probably continue.
Five months earlier, in August, Razak and his nine-party National Front Coalition, which was created after the old three-party alliance of the most important Malay, Chinese and Indian parties disintegrated after the 1969 riots, won a new and overwhelming mandate in national elections. The trouble was that it was too overwhelming, and the opposition was all but obliterated; even though it won 40 percent of the vote, it only captured ten percent of the parliamentary seats, due largely to gerrymandering that preceded the vote. Moreover, the election was held under extremely tight security regulations. No "sensitive" issues, including racial ones, were allowed to be discussed.
If the coalition's victory enhanced the Malays' political majority, which has been traded off against the prevailing economic dominance of the Chinese, one has the feeling that the tenuous racial balance Razak has so far carefully manipulated could break apart under severe economic and social stress, and that the discontent of the Malays over their still far lower standards of living than the Chinese enjoy could again explode. Such an explosion, which would very likely be accompanied by racial disorders in Sarawak and Sabah, neither of which has ever really adjusted emotionally to belonging to Malaysia though they have obtained some economic benefits from the union, would almost surely result in an increase of authoritarian control.
Able as he is, Razak is thus still walking a tightrope, both at home and abroad. Along with the continued danger of racial violence and the student demonstrations in western Malaysia, he has had to contend with the conflict in the east over Mindanao, where the Philippine Muslim revolt has been encouraged by Tun Datu Mustapha, the extremist Muslim chief of Sabah, over whom Kuala Lumpur appears to have little control. (After the last election, Razak tried, so far unsuccessfully, to wean him away from Sabah with an offer of the national Defense Ministry.) Razak himself hosted an important world Islamic meeting in the summer of 1974, which could serve to arouse the Islamic hotheads in the country, including those who are most anti-Chinese and still want to grab off the three main southern provinces of Thailand, where there is a large Muslim population.
Last summer also, Razak took the bold initiative of traveling to Peking and making Malaysia the first Southeast Asian nation to open relations with China. Though Peking agreed to stop supporting the Communist insurgency in the northern part of the Malay Peninsula, the rebels actually stepped up their activity after the recognition. The insurgency has grown in recent years after being all but erased, and, despite suffering from recent factionalism of its own, it remains another threat to stability.
Malaysia's recognition of China, which was widely heralded for at least a year, will in all likelihood soon be followed by Manila's opening relations with Peking, and then by a similar step by Bangkok. Of the remaining two nations belonging to the seven-year-old Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia and Singapore will be the last to make such a move. How this will affect the still somewhat tenuous ASEAN alliance, as well as the relationship of the two other major powers, the United States and Russia, and of Japan, to the Southeast Asian countries is difficult to predict.
ASEAN has certainly not lived up to its promise of regional cooperation, chiefly because it has been long on talk and short on action in unraveling the complicated intra-regional economic and social problems it professes to want to concentrate on, and has most often issued vague communiques with political overtones. Nevertheless, it has accomplished a degree of cooperation in such fields as transportation and education, and served as a useful transmission belt for ideas on development. Its continuing existence will probably not be affected one way or another by the diplomatic moves toward Peking of its component countries, any more than it will be by the longer-established relations the United States has had with all the nations of the area, by the growing interest the Russians have shown, particularly in trade and cultural exchanges, or by Japan's extensive economic activity. In fact, with all the powers more openly engaged in the region, the so-far sluggish ASEAN might be encouraged to take its cooperative and catalytic role more seriously than it has to date, and act as a kind of area-wide economic ombudsman.
If any Southeast Asian country overreacts to a diplomatic offensive by the two major Communist powers, especially China, it will be Singapore, the small island republic with a 75 percent Chinese population. Having proved themselves resourceful in defeating the Communists in the days before Singapore became independent, Lee Kuan Yew and his ex-Marxist companions went on to establish an efficient and prosperous city-state. But since then, Singapore has proved another democratic disappointment. Increasingly, in the past several years, Lee has cracked down hard on the once active free labor unions and on the press, as well as on his remaining political opposition, which at one time was Communist-dominated, but if allowed to develop on a wider and freer basis could provide a healthy alternative to the ruling People's Action Party, which Lee has turned into his own authoritarian vehicle.
Probably the most intellectually brilliant leader in Southeast Asia today, Lee has always suffered from chronic claustrophobia-Singapore is simply too small for him. He failed on the wider Malaysian stage, chiefly because he violated his promise to stay out of Malaysian-wide politics for five years; at one time he wanted to be Secretary General of the United Nations (and might have been a good one), and he still aspires to regional leadership, but his increasingly authoritarian ways have not helped him gain the wider recognition he deserves. There is a puritanical zealotry about him which derives in part from his phobia about the Chinese Communists and the impact he fears they might have on his own Chinese population, and also from his absolute and often commendable dedication to the cause of disproving his critics and demonstrating that Singapore can be an economic showcase for the area. In accomplishing the latter objective, he is determined to brook no political interference from anyone.
Himself Chinese as well as a purist, and in many ways as complex a person as Nehru in trying to adjust to his Western education and his Western cultural predilections and still remain an Asian, he has unfortunately become almost a caricature of the ardent reformer, a morality-driven bull in his own small China-shop. Unfortunately, it is probably too late for him to change, and, though he is still a relatively young man, one wonders what will happen to Singapore when he and his tight group of associates are faced with the problem of handing on their government to someone else.
The student rebellion of October 1973 that overthrew the military dictatorship in Thailand marked a milestone in the development, or undevelopment, of that country. After many unsuccessful experiments in constitutional government over the past two decades, the Thais now seem to have their best opportunity to create a functioning parliamentary democracy. If they do succeed in consolidating their new revolution, it could have area-wide significance as the one hopeful example of anti-authoritarianism, and already the action of the Thai students has had some impact in reinspiring the Indonesian students and stirring up those in Malaysia and Burma.
Certainly the situation in Thailand was ripe for revolt. The repression of liberties by the dictatorial triumvirate headed by Praphas Charusathien; the rampant corruption that pervaded the military and the civil bureaucracy and reached up to the three dictators themselves; the continued neglect, despite American prodding, of the impoverished populations of the northeast and other rural areas; the failure despite, or perhaps because of, the often contentious American military presence, of the counterinsurgency program to quell the rebels in the south as well as in the north and northeast-all these were legitimate issues that finally prompted the students to mount the barricades.
Their stunning victory and the quick withdrawal from the country of the three military rulers could not have been accomplished without the open support of the liberal-minded King Bhumibol, who not only backed the students and consulted with them during the uprising but persuaded the army to keep its hands off and let the revolution run its rapid course. But the King remains a constitutional monarch, and there is no guarantee that he can hold the army in check indefinitely if the democratic process, which has moved slowly, fails to prove itself.
Today there are ominous as well as encouraging signs. The student groups have been fighting among themselves and, while taking part in the unfolding political procedures, including the passage of a new constitution, the formation of political parties, and the first elections since the revolution, held in January, are unclear about their long-range objectives and have lost much of their popularity. Without any firm democratic traditions and experience, parties in the past have tended to engage in endless bickering in the National Assembly, so that the army became impatient and simply moved in to take over again. The plethora of present parties-there are more than 40-have joined in several major groupings, including two predominant right- and left-wing ones; remnants of the old Democrat Party and some new army elements are among the former, while a new socialist-labor coalition has sprung up on the Left.
As of late February, it appeared that the first post-election government would be led by the Democrats, but there may be a rapid succession of experimental coalitions. Whatever its complexion, any political group holding power for any length of time will have to retain the support of the King, a majority of army leaders and the Bangkok bureaucracy. Moreover, the Chinese businessmen behind the scenes have the money and prestige to influence any regime, particularly now that trade with China has been opened up and recognition of Peking is probably not far off. In its dealings with the Thai, Peking has adopted a subtle posture of differentiating between what the Chinese government does and what the Communist Party does to encourage the Thai insurgents, who now number about seven thousand and are increasing at the rate of ten percent a year. As the American bases are reduced and our troops are gradually withdrawn, which is both inevitable and advisable, the Thai will have to prove they are capable of handling the insurgency and at the same time running an efficient democratic government.
If there is a move to the Left in the government or if the new parliament proves as chaotic and unworkable as the old ones were, the likelihood of another army takeover will increase. The chances of this happening within the next year or two seem to me about even. Some form of military-dominated guided democracy could then evolve, but with the King maintaining a lever to hold abuses in check.
In Burma, the establishment early in 1974 of "civilian rule" under a new Constitution has only changed the face of things. Despite the election of village and district councils and a National Assembly, the new Council of State with Ne Win as its President continues to run the country much as before. At best, what Burma has done is create the trappings of an East European-type dictatorship, geared to what is still vaguely called the Burmese Road to Socialism. The military is still everywhere predominant and the 137,000-man army continues to have its hands full dealing with tribal rebellions and chiefly with the recrudescent White Flag Communists (Burmese Communist Party), the only insurgency in the area openly supported by Peking. The Communists have doubled their strength in the past year from five to ten thousand and now constitute a serious threat, Peking's apparent aim being to counter any Soviet thrust toward the Indian Ocean (via its ties with India) and to create a friendly Burmese buffer zone.
Economically, Burma has long been dependent on foreign loans to survive. The country has a solid agricultural base, and the possibility of offshore oil discoveries, if they prove out, may bring some increase in prosperity to the 30 million people. Still highly inefficient, however, in administration, and obsolete in its infrastructure, Burma remains the victim of its past blunders, and under the continuing conditions of crisis there is no sign of an end to the harsh authoritarian rule; only the army moving against Ne Win could bring this about. However, it is interesting to note that here as elsewhere in the region student resistance has begun to be expressed, and the riots in December 1974 over the burial of U Thant in Rangoon may be a talisman of much more serious and open opposition.
As this review suggests all too clearly, the "time gained" by America's massive intervention in Vietnam has not been put to good use. Even the degree of hope engendered by the Thai revolution can hardly be connected to American action-on the contrary, there are many in Thailand who feel that the revolution was in part delayed because the war was going on, because the American presence was overwhelming, and because Americans, including both President Johnson and President Nixon, seemed almost to look with special favor on the now-departed generals.
What then of the countries of Indochina itself? As their blood, in a sense, paid for the time available to others in Southeast Asia, how badly did they fare? Again the answer is not reassuring.
The new coalition in Laos, where it always seemed to me the chances for establishing peace and possibly providing a formula for Cambodia and Vietnam were best, is a noble experiment that deserves to succeed. However, the Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese mentors, already controlling three-fourths of the area, have moved quickly to demonstrate their superior political organization in the Mekong Valley region, once held exclusively by the bickering and now leaderless right-wing and neutralist elements. Though Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma, having previously placed himself above the battle, has returned to the country after his serious illness, he no longer is the strong figure he once was, and his absence of two months dispelled the aura of his indispensability. The further erosion of non-Communist strength, especially in the corrupt south, appears unavoidable. Sooner or later, accordingly, the Pathet Lao seem destined to be the majority element, and through their hard-core leaders who are close to Hanoi, notably Kaysone Phomvihan, the North Vietnamese will be able to do pretty much as they wish-unless, as Souvanna has always hoped, a true Lao nationalism which is latent but genuine somehow surfaces.
The role of the monarchy, which both sides respect, is a salutary factor. A second factor is the presence to the north of the Chinese, who have no desire to see Laos fall completely into the North Vietnamese orbit; they are in a position to blackmail Hanoi, whose main objective remains South Vietnam and which still needs Chinese help, especially as the North's own economic problems are severe. Peking's desire to create a buffer zone in Laos, which is shared by Moscow and Washington, could perhaps create enough breathing time for Lao nationalism to consolidate, but it would still in all probability evolve into a special Lao form of national communism.
Predictions about Cambodia are difficult, given the chaotic conditions there, but one can hazard the guess that a coalition similar to that in Laos will eventually be established, and that it too will sooner or later come under Communist domination, perhaps sooner than in Laos. The chief difference between Laos and Cambodia is that the Communists in Cambodia are as divided as the elements on the government side, though this has not kept them from improving their military position. It has been apparent for some time that Sihanouk's star is fading, though he may still play a brief catalytic role at some point, and that a subtle but significant contest is going on among native Khmer Communists and those backed by Peking or Hanoi.
As in Laos, there remains a genuine Khmer nationalism-and it is represented both on the government and rebel sides. The best chance for this to express itself would be for both Sihanouk and Prime Minister Lon Nol to eliminate themselves or be eliminated, and for the chief rebel leader, Khieu Samphan (who may or may not be the original man of that name), to deal directly with some of the Phnom Penh nationalists, such as the heads of the Democratic Party and some of the anti-Sihanouk leaders of the former regime. More than the Lao, the Cambodians dislike all Vietnamese, be they Left or Right, and if they can somehow come together they may at least maintain a quasi-independence and preserve what is left of the once prestigious Khmer empire. But it will take a considerable amount of big-power prodding and supervision, and given the Sino-Soviet rivalry and the far from certain future of U.S. détente with both Communist powers, it seems doubtful that a tenuous coalition could sustain itself for very long.
The passage of time, and the long war, consequently have been devastating for the unfortunate Cambodians, and it seems more than likely that the country will eventually be swallowed up by Vietnam, with perhaps some of the western provinces once briefly held by the Thais and always coveted by them reverting to Thailand.
The Third Vietnam War that was inevitable has only brought more sorrow and tragedy to that stricken country. It was apparent from the start that the 1973 Paris agreement was solely a means for the Americans to extricate themselves and that neither of the two Vietnamese sides was then ready or willing to negotiate politically. The minimal aim of the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong has been to obtain official recognition by Saigon of the legitimacy of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, and acceptance of the large but sparsely populated area it controls. There is a strong possibility that such recognition may be accorded during 1975 when and if the Paris talks resume. But even if that happens, the Communists will probably continue to fight as they talk and seek to gain control over more of the southern population than the 10 or 12 percent they now hold. The maximum aim of Hanoi remains to conquer the South completely, and there are no signs they have given up this goal.
Despite serious problems of reconstruction and morale in North Vietnam-self-criticism has never been heard in such harsh terms as in the latter part of 1974 and early 1975-fresh troop replacements have continued to be infiltrated into the South, where new roads and petroleum pipelines with way stations have been built, and the level of fighting remains high much of the time. The Communists, in fact, are close to achieving what they would have achieved in 1965 had not the Americans entered the war-the effective cutting of the country in two across the central highlands to the coast, giving them virtual control of the northern half of South Vietnam. In the entire area extending north of Saigon, they have seized all of one province and large parts of a dozen others; the government has also been hard pressed in the Delta, where the Communists now control most of the five southernmost provinces. At this writing, what is called a "general attack"-short of a "general offensive"-is still under way, and the government everywhere is on the defensive.
Politically, according to the testimony of their own cadres, the Communists have not made nearly as much headway as they have wished. This is due partly to the loss during the long war of most of their experienced southern political workers, whom they have been unable to replace despite recent efforts to colonize the areas they hold with members of the 1954 generation who went to the North after the end of the French Indochina War. It has also been due to the diminishing revolutionary zeal of the people in the South, who were more willing to support the Vietcong in the earlier years than they are now. But if victory looms for Hanoi, the majority of the war-weary peasants will opt forlornly and fatalistically for the Communists, and make their adjustments.
There remains one hope for the South. In recent months, for the first time since the mid-1940s, there has been a resurgence of genuine nationalist activity, and it has been generated, surprisingly enough, by liberal Catholics who have taken a strong position against the corruption and lack of liberties of the regime of President Nguyen Van Thieu, himself a Catholic. The Buddhists, badly burned politically in 1963 and again in 1966, have adopted a position of watchful waiting, although their secular leaders have been active in forming the National Reconciliation Forces which represent themselves as the neutral third force provided for in the Paris agreements. If the two main religious elements can get together, and can provide the basis for reconciliation of the minor religious sects, the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai, and the majority of bona-fide secular nationalists, there is a bare possibility that a true third force could emerge, at least holding a balance of power between the Communists and the Saigon regime.
The strength of the newly emerging nationalists, who have no weapons of their own, is hard to gauge, but they have considerable support among disillusioned government soldiers, who are increasingly making their own local accommodation with the Communists (something I predicted in the pages of this magazine in 1967).5 Whether Thieu remains in office or someone else with third-force leanings replaces him in the presidential elections of October 1975 is an important part of the equation, as is the deteriorating economic situation in the South and the poor military morale, both of which have been accelerated by declining American aid. At the moment, of the two weary boxers in the ring of the marathon Vietnam contest, the Communists still show far greater endurance.
If anything has been made clear by this rather discouraging overview of Southeast Asia, it is that American influence throughout the Vietnam War and since our withdrawal has played a far less significant part in what has taken place in the various countries of the region than American leaders once supposed, and hoped, it might. Obviously we have not succeeded in drawing the line we had tried to draw in Vietnam. But even if the American action in Vietnam is judged as a holding operation for the sake of the rest of Southeast Asia, it has been largely a failure. We have neither succeeded in encouraging the building of democracy and governments responsive to the people nor persuaded the other countries to create among themselves a cohesive entity that would serve as a deterrent force against possible outside aggression. From the military standpoint, SEATO is a hollow shell, and talk of nonaggression pacts among the various nations, and of some new sort of collective defense systems, has not led to any important results. While, to be sure, there is no immediate threat from the big powers in the area, one cannot say that, taken as a whole or regarded nation by nation as targets of subversion, the Southeast Asian countries are much better off than they were eight or ten years ago. The threat of subversion is still a serious one, and the general lack of political stability constitutes a danger factor.
One must, therefore, conclude, to return to the questions posed earlier, that our over-involvement in Vietnam served no useful catalytic purpose. The "time gained" has at best created a certain sense of self-dependence in most of the countries, and a feeling that each, in its own way, must define its own identity as part of Asia. Whether ASEAN, in due time, can promote a larger regional identity remains to be seen, but the outlook at the moment is not especially encouraging. There are too many rivalries, commercial, political and racial, to warrant much optimism, though it is possible, as for example in the case of the Muslim disturbances in the Philippines, that sooner or later a formula for mediation may be found within the region itself.
If our intervention in Vietnam served, at best, to delay a Communist takeover, or certainly a more rapid broadening of Communist influence throughout the Indochina area, it seems to me impossible to say that our dismal experience there has affected events elsewhere in Southeast Asia very much one way or another. It may be postulated that, if Indochina had been overrun sooner, the impact of such an earlier Communist expansion would have altered events elsewhere, but this remains a very "iffy" proposition. The one possibly positive exception, which I have referred to earlier, is Indonesia, where the initiation of the over-hasty 1965 coup can perhaps be attributed partially to the Communist setbacks in South Vietnam. If Peking did help spur that failed coup, it may be that this also was a contributing factor, but only one, to the Chinese adopting a more cautious line in encouraging insurgencies in other Southeast Asian nations. Those insurgencies remain alive today, but it must also be said that American policy-makers probably misread or exaggerated the Chinese threat, at least in the alarmist terms in which it was seen in 1965.
If the costly experience of Vietnam has taught us anything, it is that the nations of the area are best left alone to work out their own political solutions. The United States can do its best to moderate and diminish great-power rivalries, and in any event to encourage the neutrality of the countries of Southeast Asia, and of the region as a whole, toward such rivalries. Obviously the American rapprochement with China has already made a critical difference. This was scarcely predictable as the cards lay in 1961 or 1965, but one can properly ask-might it have come about even earlier if we had learned more about Asian communism through a successful gamble with Ho Chi Minh in the 1940s? A deepening of the present state of détente with both Moscow and Peking could help immensely to assure the neutrality of Southeast Asia. At the moment, there are no signs of aggressive intent by any of the big powers; the acute Sino-Soviet hostility is reflected elsewhere, and in the past year there have been many indications that the Japanese have absorbed the lessons of the Tanaka trip and are acting to meet the dangers of their over-zealous economic imperialism.
So the most we should do is maintain our interest in Southeast Asia, but at a low profile, and as best we can, given the social and economic imperatives that we face domestically in the United States, encourage more rational development in the different countries of the region while, when the occasion demands it, expressing our continuing concern with democratic reforms. It would be a pity if our disillusion over Vietnam, and our turning inward, provoke anything less than that.
1 See Evelyn Colbert, "The Road Not Taken: Decolonization and Independence in Indonesia and Indochina," Foreign Affairs, April 1973.
2 As to just how important Peking's influence was, we shall probably never have conclusive evidence; most of the key participants are dead and only some of the relevant documents are likely to see the light of day. My own opinion is that Peking's advice fitted with other independent assessments by the Indonesian Communist leadership; its effect was probably significant but not in itself decisive. Certainly, Aidit and his colleagues were not in the position of taking orders from Peking.
4 Ibid., p. 191.
5 "Viet Nam: Crisis of Indecision," Foreign Affairs, October 1967.