WHEN President Lyndon Johnson visited Malaysia in 1966, Vietnam (to some, American) War was raging. The “domino” theory was also in vogue, with the possibility that Malaysia would fall into the hands of Communist infiltrators. Purportedly, other Southeast Asian nations would follow.
Indeed in his remarks upon arrival at Subang Airport, Kuala Lumpur on Oct 30, 1966, he made reference to “our struggle in Vietnam today”. He said: “You have shown that military action can stop Communist aggression, and that while the aggression is being stopped, and even more strongly when it is stopped — the peace, as well as the war, can be won. Your example offers us hope for the future. It is a great pleasure to be here and to see it firsthand.”
In short, Johnson’s visit was to shore up support for the hugely unpopular war which hitherto still remain undeclared, fuelled by the images of the My Lai massacre as well the indiscriminate bombings and spraying of toxic chemicals like agent orange (making the case in Syria look pale in comparison) that is maiming and killing innocent victims even until today.
China, still asleep (economically), was on the side of Vietnam militarily and ideologically speaking, though less so compared to Soviet Russia. It was a multi-polar world, and in the heyday of the Cold War. Malaysia then had no official diplomatic ties with China. Our country had its own insurgency problem to contend with.
Interestingly, Johnson’s remarks at Subang are found online under the title, The American Presidency Project, by Gerhard Peters and John Woolley (www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=27969).
At the about the same time, some vulnerable Southeast Asian nations were contemplating a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) which came into being in 1971. It was a declaration signed by the Foreign Ministers of the Asean member states (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) in Kuala Lumpur. The declaration publicly stated their intent to keep Southeast Asia "free from any form or manner of interference by outside powers" and "broaden the areas of cooperation". This is still the case today.
Fifty years on, the scenario is markedly different. The Americans are now out of Vietnam with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. This is despite the heavy military cost as well as more than a million lives lost, mainly the local populations including Cambodians and Laotians. In contrast, less than 100,000 US service members reportedly died in the conflict. The “domino” effect remains largely an illusion of the imperialistic powers keen to ensure that US interest is not compromised at all cost.
Meanwhile Asean has expanded to twice its membership, with Vietnam neatly falling into the fold as the new and vibrant economic power in the region, despite remaining ideologically Communist. Similarly, China has awoken and taken more strategic interest in the region, and is also an active Asean partner. It is a significant trading partner of Malaysia and the region.
Although somewhat fledgling, ZOPFAN is more than 40 years old and covers an even greater boundary.
The Berlin Wall had also fallen leading to the demise of the Communist bloc. We thought the world would be safer. Instead the resulting unipolar world unfortunately saw even more wars in the first decade of the 21st century alone. This time it is under the banner of “war on terror” invented by another US President who unilaterally declared wars against Muslim countries, notably Afghanistan and Iraq, claiming millions of innocent lives.
More recently, the Ukrainian crisis emerged unexpectedly in the plot, posing another challenge to the US and Western interests in general. Should this happen to be a Middle Eastern or a Muslim country, the “war on terror” strategy would have kicked in quite readily. We recall the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990, and declaration of the former as the 19th province of the latter. The responses were swift and brutal, continued to be cloaked by the Cold War mentality.
Given all these scenarios, one is anxious to find out the difference in Obama’s visit this time around. While the places, events and actors may have changed, could it be that the game plan remains largely the same, with US interest taking priority under the pretext to “rebalance” the situation in the region in yet another American Presidency Project? Or will Obama champion ZOPFAN as a mark of respect for the sovereignty of Asean nations and their combined populations of over 600 million in determining their own future and destiny "free from any form or manner of interference by outside powers?" We will soon find out.
Dzulkifli Abdul Razak NST Channels Learning Curve 27 April 2014