Southeast Asia
Author: Hackett
Date: 1992

Southeast Asia

One of the first indications that the whole structure of imperialism
would quickly collapse came in the late 1940s when Indonesian nationalists
demanded a complete break with the Netherlands. An ugly war ensued, and
finally in 1948, through UN mediation, the Dutch East Indies became the nation
of Indonesia. The biggest and potentially richest nation in Southeast Asia,
Indonesia has enjoyed little tranquillity since it gained independence. The
state is 88 percent Muslim but encompasses a mixture of many cultures in its
3000 islands, ranging from Stone Age people to urban professionals and
intellectuals. Complicating the situation is the prominence of the Chinese
minority, which dominates. There have been anti-Chinese riots and plots in
various islands against the central government in Java.

For the first fifteen years after independence, Indonesia experienced
declining exports, inflation, and food shortages. Its population increased
while its economy declined. The main responsibility for this situation
belonged to Indonesia's flamboyant president Achmed Sukarno (1901-1970). He
contracted huge Russian loans for arms, fought a costly guerrilla campaign
against Malaysia, confiscated foreign businesses, and wasted money on
expensive, flashy enterprises.

Muslim students in Indonesia triggered the events that led to Sukarno's
downfall. At the beginning of 1966 they launched attacks on Indonesians they
believed to have communist connections. An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 were
killed. The army's chief of staff, General T. N. J. Suharto became effective
head of state, and in March 1967 became president officially.

Suharto brought stability to the country and initially installed a more
west-leaning government. In return he got substantial American aid. In the
next twenty-five years Suharto's essentially military regime faced serious
problems. In 1971 and again in 1974 there were serious racial outbursts during
which thousands of students went on rampages, looting and damaging Chinese
shops and homes. During the 1970s some 30,000 political dissidents were
imprisoned, while rampant corruption dominated government, the civil service,
and business. Enormous wealth remained concentrated in the hands of a very few
individuals.

Created out of former British holdings, the Federation of Malaysia was
admitted into the British Commonwealth in 1957. In 1963 it became independent
and immediately faced Sukarno-sponsored guerrilla attacks. As in Indonesia, a
major problem in Malaysia is the country's racial mix and the resulting
hostilities. The majority of the population is Malay, but the Chinese hold the
majority of the wealth, and what they do not control is largely owned by the
small Indian minority. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Malays attacked the
other two groups.

One of the richest areas in Southeast Asia after the war was Singapore, a
city-state roughly three times the size of Washington, DC. Singapore withdrew
from the Federation of Malaysia in August 1965 and after that was dominated by
the People's Action Party, run by Lee Kuan Yew. Taking advantage of its superb
location at the Straits of Malacca, Singapore became one of the richest places
in the world. At the end of the 1980s its 2.5 million people generated a GNP
of more than $29 billion. What Lee Kuan Yew did not provide in terms of
unfettered civil rights, he more than made up for in the efficiency and
stability of his rule.

Vietnam: The Postwar French Phase

After World War II France was forced to grant a measure of autonomy to
Cambodia and Laos, its former colonial possessions in Southeast Asia. The
status of Vietnam posed a greater problem. In 1945 a nationalist and
pro-communist movement led by Ho Chi Minh had established the independent
Republic of Vietnam, usually referred to as the Vietminh regime.

Negotiations between the Vietminh and the French led nowhere, and war
broke out in December 1946. The cruel and violent struggle, anticolonial as
well as ideological, lasted for nearly eight years. In May 1950 the United
States began sending substantial financial and military support to the French.
The end came dramatically in 1954 when the French, despite U.S. assistance,
surrendered their isolated outpost at Dien Bien Phu, along with 10,000 troops.

In a conference at Geneva later that year a truce line was established at
the 17th parallel, to be regarded as a temporary boundary pending nationwide
elections. These elections were never held, and instead a new group proclaimed
the Republic of South Vietnam, based in Saigon, south of the truce line.
Meanwhile, the division between the Vietminh regime in Hanoi and the Saigon
government increased. Along with the movement of hundreds of thousands of
Roman Catholic Vietnamese refugees from the north came a powerful infiltration
of communist military personnel and materiel from Hanoi.

The United States shipped large numbers of men and weapons to Saigon in
an attempt to create a South Vietnamese state capable of holding its own
against the Vietminh and their allies in South Vietnam. The military activity
on both sides violated the Geneva agreements, but it could be argued that
since none of the governments had signed them, they simply were not binding.
Washington sponsored the establishment of the Southeast Asia Treaty
Organization (SEATO) to stop the spread of communism into Cambodia, Laos, and
South Vietnam.

[See The Vietnam War]

Increasing American Involvement

At first the Americans gave full support to Ngo Dinh Diem, the leading
figure of the non-communist south. He rejected Ho Chi Minh's requests to hold
elections throughout all Vietnam under the Geneva agreements because he feared
that his government would lose. He also refused to carry out comprehensive
land reforms desired by Washington, choosing instead to rely for support on
the landlord and the urban middle classes.

At the same time, the communists, thwarted in their aim to unite north
and south by an election, began guerrilla operations against Diem's
government. This so-called Second Vietnamese War began in 1957. Many peasants,
disillusioned by Diem's failure to carry out land reform, tacitly or actively
supported the communist guerrilla effort. In December, the National Liberation
Front (NLF) - popularly known as the Viet Cong - was established in the south
and gained full support from Hanoi.

Diem, in the face of a rising crisis, became even more autocratic and
less inclined to make reforms, perhaps reflecting Washington's shift in policy
from Eisenhower emphasis on "nation-building" to the Kennedy strategy of
"counter-insurgency." The NLF threatened to take over the entire government by
force, and a coup and Diem's assassination did little to improve the
situation. Following a series of short-lived, essentially military
governments, Nguyen van Thieu became president of South Vietnam in 1967.

In 1960 there were only 800 U.S. military advisers in the country. Four
years later, this figure had risen to 23,000. In August 1964 Washington
accused North Vietnam of attacking United States destroyers in the Gulf of
Tonkin. Following President Johnson's request, Congress adopted - by a Senate
vote of 88-2 and a House vote of 416-0 - a joint resolution approving "all
necessary measures ... to prevent further aggression" and authorized the
president to assist South Vietnam in its defense, using military force if
required.

Thereafter, the war in all of its aspects became increasingly
Americanized, and by 1968 there were more than 500,000 U.S. troops in the
country. In 1965 the United States started an intensive air campaign against
North Vietnam. The aerial campaign failed to intimidate the North Vietnamese
and became a subject of bitter controversy in the United States.

Pulling Out

By 1968 many Americans had begun to question the U.S. role in Vietnam.
Their doubts were sharpened in the early spring of 1968 when the Viet Cong
launched the Tet offensive against the Saigon forces and the Americans. Widely
covered by television and print journalists, the offensive turned into a
military disaster for the NLF and Hanoi, but the images of death and
destruction communicated a notion of helplessness to the American people. The
U.S. military victory became a political defeat for President Johnson.

As the number of Americans killed in Vietnam grew, the antiwar movement
spread from a few score campus radicals to include moderate politicians,
suburbanites, and mainstream clergy. The financial costs of the war were
enormous, helping fuel an inflation that continued through the 1970s. The
political cost for Lyndon Johnson was equally high, forcing him to step down
after one term.

During the final months of Johnson's administration peace talks began in
Paris with all interested parties represented. The Nixon administration
continued the talks through three years of frustrating negotiations until, in
January 1973, the Paris accord was signed. It provided for a cease-fire, the
withdrawal of U.S. troops, and the release of all prisoners of war.

Pending elections to be arranged later, Nguyen van Thieu's South
Vietnamese government was to remain in power. An international commission was
to be established to investigate cease-fire violations. The Paris Accord
contained no provision for the withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces. Once the
Americans withdrew, the North Vietnamese continued their advance, and the
commission was predictably ineffectual. In early 1975, the Hanoi forces, soon
to be the fifth strongest military in the world, began a massive offensive.
Deprived of U.S. support, the southern forces fell apart once the northern
frontiers were overrun. Saigon, now named Ho Chi Minh City, was captured in
late April. Many South Vietnamese fled their homeland and some 140,000 gained
sanctuary in the United States.

For the United States the legacy of the Vietnam conflict was 58,000
killed, a financial outlay of at least $146 billion, a society bitterly split,
and a host of veterans who were rebuked or ignored. It took ten years for the
United States to come to terms with the war. The legacy for Vietnam was a
twenty-year delay in the Vietminh takeover and incalculable human and material
losses. The country has barely begun to recover economically.

Indochina After 1975

The United States had expanded the fighting into neutral Cambodia in the
spring of 1970, invading it with the goal of cutting North Vietnamese supply
lines and driving the Hanoi army from its sanctuaries there. Following the
North Vietnamese victory in 1975, communists took control of Cambodia and
Laos. The ruthless and brutal Khmer Rouge regime created a reign of terror in
Cambodia, which was renamed Kampuchea. In Phnom Penh, the capital, nearly all
the inhabitants - more than 2 million people - were driven into the
countryside, regardless of age or infirmity. People in other cities suffered
the same fate; many died from sickness or starvation. A new social system of
farm units with labor brigades and communal kitchens was set up. The slightest
sign of disobedience resulted in death.

The leader of the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge regime was Pol Pot. His
followers murdered thousands of innocent peasants along with "anyone who had
been associated with the cities, with foreigners, or with intellectual,
business, or technical activities." ^2 The regime's goal seems to have been a
self-sufficient agricultural society in which most people would have food and
shelter but no pay. It is estimated that between 1975 and 1980 between 2 and 3
million Cambodians have died, "shot, beaten to death, starved, brutalized. Few
people in modern times have been subjugated to such barbarism." ^3 The Pol Pot
regime was overthrown when Vietnamese armies invaded the country. The
Cambodians now suffered the ravages of war in addition to continued,
indiscriminate killings and massacres.

[Footnote 2: Sheldon W. Simon, "Cambodia: Barbarism in a Small State Under
Siege," Current History, December 1978, p. 197.]

[Footnote 3: Robert A. Scalapino, "Asia at the End of the 1970s," Foreign
Affairs, 1980, no. 3, p. 720.]

While China supported Pol Pot, the Soviet Union supported the Vietnamese
invaders and a Cambodian faction opposed to Pol Pot. Early in 1979 Chinese
armies invaded Vietnam, destroying several of its northern towns, but failed
to draw Vietnamese armies out of Cambodia. After this brief sortie, the
Chinese forces withdrew, and the world gained an appreciation of the military
strength of the Vietnamese regime.

Although the situation in Laos was not so chaotic, yet there also the
Vietnamese regime imposed some regimentation and abuse of the Laotians, some
of whom were sent to "reeducation camps." Many professional people fled the
country, and soon the lack of food and deplorable health conditions made Laos'
standard of living nearly the lowest in the world.

Since the 1980s, much of Indochina has been a confused mass of fleeing
refugees. Unwilling to accept North Vietnamese rule, thousands took to the sea
in rickety boats. Many Chinese living in Vietnam were mistreated by the new
regime and retreated across the border to China. Great numbers of refugees
fled from Laos and Cambodia to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Hong Kong.
In addition, thousands of "boat people" have drowned at sea in their leaky
craft, been attacked by pirates in the South China Sea, or died of thirst and
starvation when refused permission to land.


 

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