|Central Themes and Key Points
John Bresnan, Senior Research Scholar, Weatherhead East Asian Institute,
Originally designed in the 1980s
to support the New York State 9th-10th grade Global History requirement,
the themes are designed to provide an infrastructure for the myriad
facts and dates encountered in studying the long histories of the
East Asian countries. The themes are reprinted here for educators
seeking new perspectives to bring to bear on the individual histories
of each of the East Asian countries — China, Japan, Korea,
— and of South and Southeast Asia also.
Southeast Asia and America since 1492
Southeast Asia is almost as far away from some
parts of the United States as it is possible to get without starting
to come back. Culturally, too, it seems distant, often exotic.
But Southeast Asia has not been all that far from the United States
in a practical sense for a long time. It was the spice islands
of Southeast Asia (the Indies) that Columbus was seeking when he
found America. One of those islands was traded by England when
it acquired the island of Manhattan from the Dutch in 1664. There
are records of American ships in the waters of the region as early
as the 1600s too. By the end of the 1850s, American missionaries,
traders, sea captains, naval officers and diplomats were well acquainted
with most of what is now known as Southeast Asia. At the beginning
of the 20th century, the United States became immersed in the affairs
of the region when it took control of the Philippine islands. In
the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States fought its only
losing war in Vietnam. In the late 1990s, a financial crisis that
began in Thailand caused fears for the global system of finance
led by the United States. And in the last year of the 20th century,
the United States was much involved in East Timor’s acquisition
of independence from Indonesia. So Southeast Asia and the United
States have figured in each other’s history in many ways
over many years.
Knowledge about Southeast Asia has nevertheless been extremely
limited among the American population. Distance has always been
a factor. In the last generation, the Vietnam War has been an added
factor. It is as though, having made a tragic error of judgment
there, Americans preferred to act as though the country and the
region of which it is a part did not exist.
Teaching about Southeast Asia is important, then, because Southeast
Asia has much to tell us about our own history. There are some
other things to be said in its favor as well:
- Because Southeast Asia seems exotic, teaching about it offers
an opportunity to help students explore how very much alike human
societies really are, even when they appear on the surface to be
- Because Southeast Asia is a region where all the great civilizations
of Asia have come together, and all the great world religions as
well, it offers an opportunity to introduce students to these—and
to problems of human relations that are very similar to those that
America faces, but in another setting, on the other side of the
- Because Southeast Asia is a major world region—it contains
more people than all of Latin America or of sub-Sahara Africa—Southeast
Asia has all the problems of poverty and politics that we think
about when we think about the economically less developed parts
of the world
- Because Southeast Asia has been very much a part of the recent
process of globalization, it is strategically involved in economic
relations with the United States that are a serious test of American
leadership in the post-cold war world.
Of course an individual teacher and class will not be able to
follow all these possible themes. The teacher will want to select
one that suits his or her own preferred approach and that is in
harmony with the program that is being developed for the entire
school year. The point is simply that all these approaches are
available in the case of Southeast Asia and, because of the diversity
of the region, are available with a richness that few other parts
of the world offer.
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Is Southeast Asia?
Teaching about Southeast Asia offers a good opportunity to set students
to work on some geography that will be new to almost all of them.
It is exotic enough to have fascinated scientists for centuries.
Geographically, Southeast Asia is the region that lies east of
India and south of China. The Chinese knew it for at least a thousand years
as the Southern Islands. The region became known as Southeast Asia
only during World War II. But most people know it by that name today.
Southeast Asia is bordered by the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean,
the South China Sea, and the Pacific Ocean and includes thousands
of islands. Ocean trade and navigation have been important since
earliest times. Indeed it was the Malays who invented the Lateen
sail, which revolutionized sailing in the 8th century. Originating
in Southeast Asia where monsoon winds blow in one direction for several
months, this invention permitted navigators to catch the wind even
while their ships headed almost directly into it.
Following the map which appears at the end of this guide, from west
to east, one sees that Southeast Asia includes the countries that
are now known as MYANMAR (formerly BURMA), THAILAND, LAOS, CAMBODIA
and VIETNAM, all part of the Southeast Asian mainland. And then,
following the map South and to the East, the region includes MALAYSIA,
which is made up of the Malayan peninsula and two states on the north
coast of the island of Borneo; the small city-state of Singapore
at the southern tip of the Malayan peninsula; the small state of
BRUNEI on the north coast of Borneo; the archipelago of large and
small islands that comprise INDONESIA, extending to and including
the western half of the island of New Guinea; in the midst of the
Indonesian archipelago, the half-island state of EAST TIMOR, independent
since 1999; and the further archipelago of large and small islands
to the North that comprise the PHILIPPINES.
The region is divided geologically and ecologically. Tectonic plates
under the ocean floor extend south and eastward from the Asian landmass,
and the shallow seas shown on a physical map depict areas that were
above sea level during the ice ages. People and animals travelled
across the land bridges, and plant life travelled with them. Thus
the flora and fauna of Asia are found in such islands as Sumatra,
Java, and Borneo (or Kalimantan, as it is known to the Indonesians),
including the elephant, tiger and rhinoceros, some of which still
survive in the wild, principally in game reserves. Another set of
plates extends north and westward from Australia, and the plant and
animal life of the eastern islands is related to that of Australia.
Here are found the exotic birds of paradise and marsupials. This
division of the region was discovered by the great English naturalist,
Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary and friend of Charles Darwin.
The clash of the tectonic plates has created a major line of
earthquakes and volcanic activity. Indeed, a large percentage of all the active
volcanoes in the world lies in island Southeast Asia, and they have
been a major factor in human settlement. The volcanoes bring large
quantities of minerals from the depths of the earth up to the surface,
and from here they are spewed across the landscape and into the air,
fertilizing the soils and making them ideal for intensive farming.
In areas where volcanoes remain active, such as the islands of Luzon
in the Philippines and Java in Indonesia, the density of human populations
is among the highest in the world. Elsewhere, tropical rainfall feeds
the growth of tropical jungles, but the soils are thin, and the population
Situated astride the Equator, between the Tropic of Cancer and the
Tropic of Capricorn, Southeast Asia has a climate that is hot and
humid. The monsoons, or strong winds that reverse direction in different
seasons, are an important factor of life, agriculture, and navigation
of the seas in Southeast Asia. Depending on the direction in which
they are blowing, the monsoon winds bring dry weather or heavy rains.
The timing of the rainy season varies, however, North and South of
the Equator. Temperature varies by altitude; it is hottest in the
lowlands and coolest in the mountains. Capital cities tend to be
port cities and so are at sea level, making them hot most of the
time. Many mountain towns are favored as resorts and centers of education.
The geography of Southeast Asia is so extensive, and its ecology
is so complex, that many aspects of the region are still largely
unexplored. The same is true of its people, especially in the more
remote areas. One explorer in recent years was Michael Rockefeller,
a young man from one of the wealthiest families in America, who led
an expedition to collect the art of primitive tribal groups in New
Guinea. Michael lost his life in New Guinea, but his team brought
back an extraordinary collection of boats, shields, masks, and other
art forms that now fill an entire wing of the Metropolitan Museum
of Art in New York City.
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Americans in Southeast Asia
Americans have been directly involved in
the affairs of Southeast Asia since the end of the 19th century. The
most dramatic ways have unfortunately been bloody: Americans have
been involved in fighting three wars in Southeast Asia during this
period. That says something about ourselves as a country—and
about the ways that Americans and Southeast Asians have tended to
think about each other.
The first occasion was the Spanish-American War. In the last years
of the 19th century, the last Spanish colonies were in rebellion—in
Latin America and in the Philippine islands. The United States intervened.
In Cuba, where Teddy Roosevelt led a famous charge up San Juan Hill,
the intervention led to independence. In the Philippines, it led
to colonization; the United States fought a popular independence
movement for several years before eventually putting it down. One
justification offered at the time was that the people of Southeast
Asia were not ready to govern themselves; all the people of the region
except those of Siam (now Thailand) were governed by European powers.
But colonialism was not suited to the American psyche. Self-government
was introduced, and the independence of the Philippines was recognized
in 1946. The American legacy to the Philippines continues to be primarily
political. When Ferdinand Marcos attempted to remain president by
stealing an election in 1986, the people protested in a non-violent
display of “people power” that forced Marcos to flee
the country. This peaceful revolution, watched on television the
world over, helped establish the idea that democracy is not suited
only to the rich industrial countries of the West.
The second time Americans fought in Southeast Asia was during the
Second World War. The Pacific part of that war was fought in the
Southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia. The Japanese had occupied every
country of Southeast Asia in order to be sure to have supplies of
food and fuel for their fight against the United States. Americans
under Douglas MacArthur fought back up the island chain from New
Guinea to the Philippines in a series of naval and land battles that
are now famous in American military history. Many brave men on both
sides lost their lives. The Americans were preparing to invade the
Japanese home islands when the atomic bombs were dropped and Japan
surrendered. Those bombings introduced a new family of awesome weapons
into human experience that we are still struggling to bring under
some kind of control.
The third time Americans fought in Southeast Asia was during the
Vietnam War, from 1965 to 1973. It was the most controversial war
in America’s history, and the only war in which America was
defeated. The reasons for the fighting were never fully accepted
by the American people, and the experience has changed the politics
of our country. Members of Congress have not been willing since to
leave foreign affairs to the President, but have fought for a larger
role in deciding foreign policy themselves. The Vietnam War provides
an excellent opportunity for students to learn how what happens far
away can have a powerful impact on our own society.
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Southeast Asians in the United States
For the first two centuries of America’s
history, almost all its people came from Europe. That has changed
in the past generation. The Immigration Act of 1965, which was initiated
by John F. Kennedy, dropped the quotas that formerly favored Europeans.
This paved the way for an increase in migration from Asia, and by
the 1970s there were as many Asians as Europeans coming to the United
States to live and work on a permanent basis.
The Philippines has been the country of Southeast Asia that has
produced the largest number of immigrants into the United States.
In one recent year, 1996, the Philippines ranked second by country
of birth in the number of immigrants the United States received from
all over the world. The rank order of the top countries, with their
numbers (in thousands), were: Mexico, 163; Philippines, 55; India,
44; Vietnam, 42; China, 41; Dominican Republic, 32; and Cuba, 26.
These data argue that the Asianization of America has been proceeding
at a pace only somewhat slower than the pace of Hispanization.
The case of the Philippines is easy to understand. The Philippines
is a predominantly Christian country, the only one in Asia. Its national
political and economic affairs are conducted in English. Its high
level of education makes it easy for its people to find employment
in the United States and prosper here. In addition, the American
colonial period introduced the Philippines to many aspects of American
culture, so that many Philippine men and women tend to feel quite
comfortable living and working in the United States.
The other large numbers of immigrants from Southeast Asia all trace
from the Vietnam War. Between 1981 and 1995, the totals by country
were (again in thousands): Vietnam, 676; Laos, 180; Cambodia, 116;
and Thailand, 95.
The Vietnamese were people of South Vietnam, which the United States
supported in the war. Many were military or civilian officials of
the defeated South, some of them Roman Catholics whose families had
fled North Vietnam when it had fallen to the communists in the mid-1950s,
and some others people of Chinese descent who were employed in small
family businesses and were treated like pariahs by the conquering
communist forces. Many of them left Vietnam by spectacular means,
going (or being forced to go) out to sea in dangerously small boats,
filling the South China Sea with “boat people,” and stirring
the conscience of the international community. Well educated and
industrious as they are, the Vietnamese also have prospered in America.
The people who came from Laos were, on the contrary, mostly tribal
people from the mountains of Laos, who lived with scant access to
modern technology. These Hmong people sided with the Americans against
the leaders of their country, who in turn had been installed by their
more powerful Vietnamese neighbors. Lacking the affinities that have
been helpful to the people of the Philippines and Vietnam in adjusting
to life in America, the Lao refugees as a group have been in need
of considerable support.
Immigrants from Cambodia are survivors of the infamous regime of
the Khmer Rouge, the radical communists who emptied the cities, tried
to kill off all the educated elite of the nation, and were responsible
for the death by violence or starvation of a million people. Coming
from among the better educated parts of the Cambodian population,
these refugees also have adapted well to life in America. Some younger
members of this community, after growing up in America, have returned
to Cambodia to try to help in its recovery.
The immigrants from Thailand did not come as refugees. Thailand,
like the Philippines, supported the United States in the war in Vietnam.
Major air bases in Thailand housed elements of the U.S. air force,
where many thousands of U.S. airmen served. Thailand also was a favored
place for American soldiers to take leave from the fighting in Vietnam.
Thai-American families resulted, like the family of Tiger Woods,
the golf champion. Thai-Americans also include many who became acquainted
with Americans during the war and were attracted here by the greater
professional and business opportunities. Obviously these newcomers
also have tended to prosper on their own.
Most urban communities in the United States now have sizable numbers
of these new Americans from Southeast Asia. The children of these
communities are found in many classes in our schools. They are not
likely to know a lot about their heritage, but are often eager to
learn. Some attention to that heritage in the schools could go a
long way toward correcting stereotypes that other children have about
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The People of Southeast Asia
|Mountains, Lowlands, and Cities
All the varieties of human experience are found
in Southeast Asia. In the mountains of the mainland and the major
islands, tribal peoples still live in ways that are largely unchanged
from the ways their ancestors lived thousands of years ago. (Southeast
Asia was populated very early in human experience, and the first
remains of early humans were found there — the remains of Java Man,
for example, were the first to be labeled pithecanthropus erectus.)
Young American university students still go to Southeast Asia in
relatively large numbers each year to study these societies, because
they tell us things about human experience that seem fundamental,
and so teach us what is important about ourselves as well. In some
communities, teachers should be able to arrange for one of these
students to visit their classes for a day to talk about their experience.
Most of the people of Southeast Asia, however, live in the low-lands.
Most of them are farmers, and their most common crop is rice. Most
of these farmers are highly sophisticated in their work, because
their lives depend upon it. Much of the land is terraced where there
are hills, or criss-crossed by canals where it is relatively flat,
so that water is available to as much of the land as possible. Modern
research stations are developing new varieties of rice that have
doubled production in recent decades. Modern fertilizers are in widespread
use. There has been a revolution in rice farming in just the last
two decades or so. It is part of what has been called "the green
revolution." And it has had some of its most powerful impact
in Southeast Asia, where many farm families have doubled their income,
and now own television sets, motorcycles, and many of the other material
things that used to be enjoyed only by city people. They also are
now able to send their children to school; primary education is almost
universal in Southeast Asia, and it is not unusual to find farm families
that are sending children right on up to the university.
Cities are where the population is growing most quickly, however,
because young people have been streaming to them to get a better
education and in hopes of finding better jobs. Some of the cities
of Southeast Asia are now among the largest in the world. Manila,
Bangkok, and Jakarta, for example, all have populations that are
larger than New York or Los Angeles. These cities have all the problems
that big cities elsewhere have — crowding, crime, homelessness,
pollution. They also are where many new industries are located. Shirts
and shoes made in these cities are now sold in American department
stores. When people talk about protecting American companies from
foreign competition, they often mean protecting American clothing
and shoe manufacturers from the new companies making the same things
in these Southeast Asian cities. It's a hard choice for Americans,
because these other people are our friends, and these new industries
are very important to them. How we decide to handle the problem will
have a big impact on the cities of Southeast Asia.
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The region is divided culturally, but here the
lines do not follow precisely those created by geographic and ecological
factors or by political boundaries.
The dominant peoples of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia,
and Vietnam all speak languages related Chinese, and are believed
to have moved into the areas they now inhabit from Southern China
in relatively recent times. The insular peoples of Malaysia, Brunei,
Indonesia, East Timor, and Philippines speak another family of languages,
known as Malayo-Polynesian or Austronesian, and are believed to have
occupied the islands over a very long period of time. The population
of Singapore is predominantly Chinese and was settled only in the
The divisions of the region among countries are not the same as
the divisions among cultures. Most of the current political borders
were established by European colonial powers, which were less concerned
with ethnic and linguistic homogeneity than with modeling Southeast
Asia after the Western system of nation-states with well-defined
territories. On either side of these borders today are usually found
people who are related to each other, or at least speak the same
language, and who were traveling back and forth, and trading back
and forth, long before the Europeans arrived. In addition there are
many linguistic divisions among the indigenous peoples, as the language
map in the rear of this guide only begins to suggest. There also
are significant numbers of non-indigenous peoples in each country,
most notably migrants from China.
The Chinese have had their biggest cultural impact on Vietnam, which
was ruled as a province of China for the first thousand years of
the current era. Subsequently they came to other parts of Southeast
Asia to trade Chinese goods for tropical products. Still others came
during the colonial period to work for the Europeans in ports and
on plantations. Chinese make up most of the population of Singapore
today, and as a result of their industry and ingenuity, Singapore
in 1998 ranked as the second richest country in Asia after Japan.
People of Chinese descent make up about a third of the population
of Malaysia. The Chinese also make up large minorities of the big
cities of Thailand and the Philippines, although they have intermarried
to a considerable extent, and are relatively well assimilated into
the local populations. Others of Chinese descent make up a small
part of the population of Indonesia, where they are nevertheless
the leaders of commerce and industry.
Such ethnic heterogeneity is one of the outstanding characteristics
of Southeast Asia, and the source of some of its most serious social
and political challenges.
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in Southeast Asia
Because Southeast Asia lies across the sea routes
between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, explorers and traders
have been interested in it for at least the last two thousand years.
Missionaries have traveled to and through the region for at least
as long. Hindu and Buddhist missionaries converted many of the people
of Southeast Asia by the 12th century. Myanmar (Burma), Thailand,
Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are still predominantly Buddhist today,
and traces of Buddhism can be found in other parts of the region.
On the little island of Bali in Indonesia, for example, which is
famous for its graceful dancers and is one of the most popular tourist
sites in the world, the population still practices a mixture of Hinduism
and Buddhism in its daily life.
Islamic missionaries also traveled to Southeast Asia, and established
schools of learning there by the 15th century. The people of the
Malay peninsula, and the people living on the coasts of the islands
of Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan (Borneo), Sulawesi (Celebes), and Mindanao,
were converted to Islam. These places are now parts of Malaysia,
Indonesia and the Philippines. Indonesia is overwhelmingly Islamic—it
has more Muslims than any other country in the world — and in Malaysia
Islam is the state religion. Throughout these populations, a great
debate is taking place about their religion and especially how they
should interpret it in the modern world. Some argue that the modern
world is evil and Muslims have a duty to oppose it. Others argue
that Islam is not just about the hereafter, that it has lessons to
teach about how to make the world a better place, and that Muslims
should work with other people to make life better for everybody.
This debate is taking place all over the Islamic world, of course.
In Southeast Asia it is likely to work out in ways that are different
from the Middle East, partly because Islam in Southeast Asia is no
more homogenous than the societies are.
Christianity was the last of the great world religions to reach
Southeast Asia, coming only with the Europeans in recent centuries.
Many of the European explorers, and the missionaries who traveled
with them, were aiming to penetrate China and Japan. They failed
to do so to any great extent, but along the way they established
themselves in other places, and nowhere with greater success than
in the Philippines. Except for the island of Mindanao in the South,
the Philippines is a predominantly Roman Catholic country today,
part of its heritage from Spain. Catholic missionaries from France
converted people in Vietnam. Other Christian missionaries, some of
them Protestants, also converted some of the people of Indonesia’s
islands, including people in Central Java, North Sumatra, North Sulawesi,
and many of the islands of Eastern Indonesia, up to and including
western New Guinea. These Christians tend to be well educated and
have held many positions of consequence in Indonesia.
Confucianism is, strictly speaking, not so much a religion as an
ethical system, and it is not present in Southeast Asia to anything
like the extent of Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. However, it
is found among the Chinese populations of Southeast Asia, and these
populations are, as noted above, an important element in the great
mixture of races found in the region.
The tendency for religious differences to fall along the same lines
as ethnic divisions has made it easy for conflict to break out in
Southeast Asia, and made it difficult for governments to keep on
good relations with each other and to keep relations peaceful at
home. It is to the credit of political leaders that they have been
as successful as they have in dealing with these problems. When political
leadership is weak, as in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto in
1998, it has not been surprising to see violence break out, and not
surprising that it has been directed at ethnic and religious minorities
like the Chinese of Jakarta and the Christians of the Maluku islands.
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Politics in Southeast Asia
Is Southeast Asia becoming more democratic?
The success of “people power” in the Philippines in the
mid-1980s naturally raised the question about the rest of the region.
And it is an important question for Americans. We are proud of our
political values, and we feel more secure when we know that they
are shared by other people. It’s when we see large parts of
the world living under authoritarian governments, which is often
a polite way of referring to governments that are corrupt and prone
to violence, that we feel uncomfortable about the state of the world.
The short answer to the question is: “Yes, but…” The
experience of the Philippines, especially the dramatic way in which
ordinary people were able to overturn a dictator, did have an impact
on opinion elsewhere in the region, particularly among students and
intellectuals. But the Philippines, some said, was different from
the rest of Southeast Asia, too Americanized, and long accustomed
to changing its government every few years. The other countries of
the region had a different history. They were for the most part colonies
of Europeans who did not look forward to the colonies’ independence.
There were experiments with European-style politics in the first
days of independence in the 1950s, but these all gave way to autocratic
rulers in time.
Thailand was an exception. It was the only Southeast Asian entity
to escape becoming a colony of a Western power. It was the only one
to retain a functioning monarchy. And the Thai armed forces held
the real power in their country ever since they forced a constitution
on the King in the 1930s. But a growing number of Thais who studied
in Western Europe and the United States came to want their own government
to become more open and more responsive to their rapidly changing
society. In 1973, students briefly were able to take the political
initiative away from the armed forces. In 1992, civilians were helped
by the King to take over the government, although retired army generals
continued to play a role. When the financial crisis struck in 1997,
Thailand did have a functioning parliament, which voted out a cabinet
led by a former army commander, and voted in a civilian-led government.
Subsequently the Thais added an elected Senate, replacing an appointed
one. From at least the early 1990s on, the Thais also have had, like
the Philippines, a free press. This open political system had yet
to be tested in the absence of a strong monarch who is, at the same
time, a democrat. But even with that caveat, Thailand has been one
of the most democratic countries of the region coming into the 21st
Indonesia had the more common experience: a long history of European
rule (in this case, Dutch), some post-1945 fighting, early cabinets
on the European pattern, and then Sukarno as “president for
life,” succeeded by an army general who lasted for 32 years.
The financial crisis struck Jakarta in 1998; there was rioting, the
flight of capital, a corrupt and divided army, and the long-time
president, Suharto, was out—leaving nothing in the way of institutions
to provide continuity. It took almost 18 months to select a successor—a
blind Muslim religious teacher whose party came in only third in
direct elections, but a preacher of tolerance who it was hoped could
lead the nation to reconcile its now-bitter divisions between Javanese
and non-Javanese, Muslims and Christians, Malay and Chinese, civilians
and military, the corrupt and the reformers—all the detritus
of a failed regime. The press was free, elections were relatively
free and fair, but years would be required to build modern political
parties, a deliberative parliament, independent courts, and a civil
service free of major corruption, all components of a functioning
Malaysia has all the institutions of a democracy. Three political
parties represent Malays, Chinese and Indians, one for each. Electoral
politics are played out within these parties and in parliamentary
elections, all of which are free and fair enough. But the parties
are otherwise locked together in a National Front, through which
they have formed a series of governments by secret bargaining. The
aim is racial harmony; the actuality has become a system that has
grown inflexible and lent itself to a growing autocracy. The courts
have lost their independence. The mass media have come to serve the
governing parties. Loyalty to the system has become the test of merit.
Another leader could in future lead Malaysia back to its earlier
openness, but Indonesia’s inter-ethnic violence may have given
Malaysia’s race-based system a new lease on life.
Singapore has one of the region’s tightest political systems.
Parties and elections are designed to protect the elite civil service
that rules the society and its economy. It needs to be said that
this civil service is of high merit. It has a reputation of incorruptibility.
And it has produced impressive material rewards for the Singapore
population. But its justification lies in its self-image as an anomaly:
a small Chinese island in a large and sometimes hostile Malay sea,
caught as it is between Malaysia, which has often been unfriendly,
and Indonesia, which has often been anti-Chinese.
The remaining nation states of the region are decidedly not democratic
in their politics. Myanmar (Burma) is ruled by a military
junta in spite of the fact that elections in 1990 selected the party
of Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of one of modern Burma’s
founders, to govern the country. Vietnam is ruled by a Leninist
party that by now is of doubtful legitimacy in the eyes of many of
its own people. Cambodia also is ruled by a Leninist party,
but one that has made room for non-communists in a fragile coalition
at the behest of foreign donors on whom it is heavily dependent. Laos continues
under the rule of a communist party. Brunei is a Southeast
Asian version of a Persian Gulf sheikdom. East Timor is still
a question mark.
In short, Southeast Asia is becoming more democratic, but slowly.
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Southeast Asia in the Larger World
Southeast Asians have thus had a long history
of active interaction with the larger world, and they have grounds
for mixed views about it. The region has long been in contact with
Europe and America through trade, which spurred economic growth in
the region, but also brought on a colonialism that was prejudicial
to the welfare and self-respect of Southeast Asians in the end. Independence
owed more to the Japanese ability to take control of the entire region
during World War II than many Southeast Asians yet care to admit.
The cold war divided the region deeply, but only some governments
had reason to see the United States as a beneficent power.
The financial crisis of the late 1990s reinforced the sense of outsiders
as a source of benefits and danger. Private capital poured into the
open economies of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the
Philippines from the mid-1980s. The money came from banks and investment
houses in Western Europe, North America and Japan, and it financed
a great burst of development, initially in manufacturing for export,
raising annual growth rates to 7 and 8 per cent of GNP. But eventually
the foreign funds were poured into real estate, and this was preliminary
to the crisis. Local business people borrowed dollars to build urban
towers that did not earn dollars to repay the debt, on the assumption
that dollars could always be bought at the same rate of exchange.
When the value of the Thai currency fell, and dollars became more
costly, Thai borrowers defaulted and the resulting crisis ricocheted
around the world, eventually extending even to Russia.
The economies of Southeast Asia have been in dynamic contact with
distant markets since at least the early 16th century. The region
was initially a source of spices. European colonialists made it a
source of tropical agricultural products such as coffee, tea, sugar
and hemp. The Japanese took an interest in the region in 1941 as
a source of petroleum, tin and rubber, all needed to prosecute the
war. Since then the principal markets for Southeast Asia have come
to be the wealthy industrial economies of the United States, Japan
and Western Europe, in that order. In return Southeast Asia has looked
to these same economies for capital and technology, and in recent
decades has developed a wide range of new industries. Now the most
valuable exports of Southeast Asia are Armani shirts, Nike running
shoes, and Gateway hard-drives.
This experience has had a powerful impact on Southeast Asian life
and on Southeast Asian thinking about the rest of the world. The
countries that benefited most have been the ones that have been most
open—Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Organized in their own Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
since the late 1960s, they have not only seen their economies improve
but they also came to speak with a common voice and so increase their
influence in world affairs. At the center of this strategy was the
commitment to avoid differences among themselves that might attract
outside powers to interfere in the region’s affairs.
The biggest challenge this strategy faced was the difference in
ideology that developed outside the ASEAN membership between Vietnam
and Cambodia, the former with the support of the Soviet Union and
the latter that of China. Vietnam invaded Cambodia, and the fighting
soon reached the border of Thailand. That activated the ASEAN members
into playing a role in resolving the conflict. With the end of the
cold war, the remaining states of Southeast Asia were invited into
ASEAN, which at this point was widely viewed as a model regional
organization. ASEAN was unprepared to act, however, when the financial
crisis occurred in 1997-98, or when East Timor fell into chaos in
1999. After these failures, it was widely thought that rebuilding
the regional organization would take time—and the rebuilding
of cohesion in Indonesia, its largest member. Forty per cent of the
population of the ASEAN states is within the borders of this one
nation, and its leadership had been critical to the earlier record
of ASEAN success.
The ambiguity in attitudes toward the external world extends to
the United States. The United States is well understood to be very
powerful militarily and economically, and it is treated circumspectly
for that reason. Countries that have had the closest working relationships
with the United States, such as Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines,
tend to view the United States as beneficent on the whole, but distant
and inattentive except at times of crisis. Vietnam, understandably,
remains highly wary. Others, with mixed experience, such as Indonesia,
tend to see the United States as unpredictable, inclined to act unilaterally,
and tending to do so with its own domestic political agenda very
much in mind. Needless to say, this range of attitudes places a burden
on United States-Southeast Asia relations that is not easily
accommodated by the world’s lone superpower.
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The Future of U.S.-Southeast Asia Relations
America’s strategic interest in Southeast
Asia is of long standing. Since the beginning of the last century,
presidents of both parties have seen it as in the American interest
to assure that Southeast Asia, like the rest of East Asia and the
Pacific, is not dominated by any power that is potentially hostile
to the United States. Fear that China and Russia might together obtain
such a position had much to do with the American involvement in Vietnam.
In present circumstances, the domination of Southeast Asia by a hostile
foreign power seems to most analysts to be an unlikely prospect.
In addition, the probability of an international conflict in the
region into which the United States might be drawn is relatively
As a result, the long-term American interest in Southeast Asia is
seen by most responsible officials today to lie in the peace and
prosperity of the region. As this is written in mid-2000, the chief
threat to that goal is the economic and political disarray in Indonesia
resulting from the financial crisis of 1997-98 and the fall of the
Suharto government. The United States played a significant role in
opening East Timor to international peacekeepers after its people
voted for independence from Indonesia. At the same time, the United
States identified Indonesia as one of four countries in the world
to which it undertook to give priority assistance in their efforts
to become functioning democracies. The United States committed itself
to the territorial integrity of Indonesia, thus lessening the prospect
of destabilizing separatism. It broke off relations with the Indonesian
military because of its failures to punish officers responsible for
gross abuses. And it committed itself to helping the efforts of Indonesia’s
elected government to lay the groundwork for a nation under the rule
Such official American intervention in the affairs of a country
in Southeast Asia is not the norm in the twenty-first century, however.
Most of the time, private business, student exchange, and tourism
dominate the U.S. agenda in this region. That is as it should be.
And one hopes and trusts that such a state of affairs will return
soon again to all the countries of Southeast Asia and to U.S. relations
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Map of Southeast Asia