Advent of the 21st Century: The Rise of Asia
H.E. General Prem Tinsulanonda
November 26, 1996
Dusit Thani Hotel, Bangkok
Ladies and Gentlemen,
the last five decades, Asia has experienced political, economic,
social and technological transformations great in substance
and extensive in scale. At times violent and painful, at other
times peaceful and incremental, these changes have nonetheless
imbued us Asians with a sense of self confidence, a readiness
to proceed to the 21st Century. The transformations herald Asias
success story, projecting it as a region of economic progress,
wealth, security, peace and harmony.
years ago, Japan was in the midst of debris as a result of the
Second World War; fierce confrontation went on between Chinese
Nationalists and Chinese Communists; conflicts between Hindus
and Muslims resulted in the division of India into two nations,
India and Pakistan; and Indonesias quest for independence
was accompanied by a civil war. However, transformations since
have been of such a magnitude quite unimaginable then. We have
indeed witnessed the Asia Miracle.
arrive where we are now, we Asians have had to endure violent
struggles in the midst of these changes, Politically, during
the Cold War, Asia was the stage for power struggles between
dictatorship, communism and democracy, ones which reflected
ideological differences among political movements and elites
in the region as well as conflicts between the Superpowers,
namely the United States and the Soviet Union.
the aftermath of the Second World War, nationalist Asians had
to engage in violent and unrelenting struggles to liberate their
countries from Western colonialism and to institutionalize democratic
government. This was clear in the cases of India, Myanmar, Indonesia,
the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore.
the Cold War period, the major political problems facing the
countries of Asia was connected with the search for a political
system with the capacity to tackle problems of immediacy and
importance including poverty, communist insurgency, ethnic differences
and conflicts, nation-building, political instability and governmental
discovery was not rapid. These problems generated a sense of
insecurity in the Southeast Asian region. On the other hand,
they encouraged the ASEAN member nations to become unified in
their quest to deal with the problems. They tried to stand on
their own feet rather than to look for assistance from Western
powers. This generated a determination to fashion their own
methods of problem solving rather than to allow Superpowers
to do so.
the 21st century
many nations in the Asian region have encountered success in
dealing with the aforementioned conflicts. They have demonstrated
their abilities in engendering their own methods of conflict
resolution based upon wisdom, intellect, and lessons from history
and non-adherence to Western methods. Success was thus not a
matter of chance or fortune.
cannot be denied that immediately after the Second World War,
the political institutions, ideologies thoughts or philosophies
in many countries of the region were subject to Western influences.
Since these political institutions were unfamiliar to the region
and not linked to its history, they were not deeply rooted in
Asian societies. They were as a result weak and fragile, incapable
of being pillar institutions.
democratic governmental system emulated from the West thus failed.
However, success came when leaders sought their own ways to
strengthen and improve the democratic political systems of their
respective countries. They paid due attention to their respective
situations and environments. This was true in India, Singapore,
Malaysia, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand. As can
be seen in many cases, success in democratization came when
democratic aspirations acquired global dimensions in the post
Cold War era.
in these countries in actually quite diverse. This is true on
a number of dimensions, namely the acceptable extent of political
expression, as it applies to its ordinary people and the mass
media alike, the degree of integrity and honesty, the level
of efficiency in problem solving, and also the strength of democracy
itself. Singapore provides an example of efficiency and honesty
in a democratic system but political expression remains limited
there. In Thailand, citizens and the mass media are granted
much freedom, yet government efficiency is low.
has been attempting to deal with the problem of money
politics through reform of the election system by combining
proportional representation and single-member constituencys
methods. It will take a long time before one can be sure what
results. These differences in democratic forms and achievements
will remain as regional countries march into 21st century.
should be noted that not all countries have changed their political
systems to democracy. China remains under Communist Party rule,
as do Vietnam and North Korea. In Myanmar, the military regime
remains powerful. However, China and Vietnam have at least opened
up their countries to the outside world and are more accepting
of the free market so as to catch up with other countries in
the region which have been economically successful. Asian nations
entering the 21st century with different political systems but
with less conflict in many areas.
will increase. Even though there is some concern that a future
change in the Chinese leadership will affect the continuation
of present policies of the Chinese government, this is mere
conjecture. When the political environment and the free market
economy are taken into consideration, China is unlikely to divert
from present policies even if there is a change in the leadership.
new phenomenon in Asia is regional integration and multi-literalism.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN has proven
itself successful in Southeast Asia, as seen in the resolution
of the conflict in Cambodia. ASEAN has also initiated the ASEAN
Regional Forum, or ARF, so that Asia Pacific countries, including
India, can come together to consider security issues of the
Asia Pacific. ASEAN is playing an important role in pressuring
for the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea issue.
strength of ASEAN is well proven as it admits new members, with
Cambodia and Laos joining next year and Myanmar, in due course.
Southeast Asia is progressing toward the 21st century unified
under the so-called ASEAN Ten or One Southeast Asia.
future, ASEAN and the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) will remain
for a for discussion and debate in search of agreements on security
issues in the Asia Pacific region. Superpower conflict and rivalry
typical of the Cold War will not appear again but certain disputes
will remain security issues for the region. These include the
dispute over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the
conflict between China and Taiwan, or between North Korea and
South Korea. In addition there are arms build-ups engaged in
by many regional countries. ASEAN and the ARF will surely develop
mechanisms for multilateral agreements in halting and in resolving
such tensions and conflicts, with consequence that the nation
state and national sovereignty diminish in importance.
is now accepted that Asia especially East and Southeast Asia,
is experiencing the highest rate of growth which is likely to
continue into the future. South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and
Singapore have transformed themselves into newly industrialized
countries, and are followed in this regard by China, Malaysia,
Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. Latecomer Vietnam is
close behind. All in all, this economic success is most spectacular
considering that at the end of the Second World War; Asian countries
except Japan had 80 percent of their populations in rural areas,
living lives of scarcity.
merely five decades, Asia has become the region with the highest
rate of economic growth. According to World Bank data, between
1974 and 1993, East Asia and Southeast Asia had an average annual
growth rate of 7.5 percent, and between 1994 and 2003, the figure
of 7.6 percent is projected. In the year 2020, China will have
the biggest economy in the world, and South Korea, Indonesia,
Thailand, Japan, India, and Taiwan will be among the first fifteen
countries with the largest economies.
economic matters, ASEAN has set up the ASEAN Free Trade Area
or AFTA so as to promote free trade in South East Asia. APEC
was established to achieve the same objective for the Asia Pacific
in the 21st century. All this demonstrates the progressiveness
of Asian economies in accepting the free market system. In the
past, they emphasized trade protectionism.
we approach the new century, the presence of economic interdependence
will be felt in the region and economic issues will continue
to dominate the region and the world. Economic interdependence
will lead towards the development and the strengthening of regional
economic institutions and mechanisms, with the consequence that
each countrys national sovereignty and the nation state
will diminish in importance. Such organizations and institutions
will nonetheless not be dominant over national governments.
They will become more accepted and will increasingly be allowed
to play roles in the promotion of cooperation between regional
addition to regional economic integration, there are economic
projects in specific territorial areas arising from cooperation
between neighboring countries in the development of economic
zones straddling their respective territories. The economic
growth triangle project between Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia
is an example and these will multiply, making the Asia economy
more clearly borderless and emphasizing that economic interdependence
has become a necessity.
to be confronted
though Asia has been successful in developing democracy, in
maintaining peace, and in achieving economic progress, it is
confronted with a number of challenges as it approaches the
challenge faced by almost all Asian countries is the increasing
diversity within, especially the growth of what is called civil
society. To what extent can their political systems be
opened up, is the question that needs to be asked. In the past,
many countries in Asia used the authoritarian system, a closed
system, in order to accelerate economic growth. South Korea,
Taiwan and Indonesia provide examples.
with economic growth has come the expansion of a number of social
groups. Among these, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have
worked to strengthen society and community, and have been in
the forefront of struggles for the rights and interests of ordinary
people and the disadvantaged. The political system thus has
to adapt itself in response to demands.
is facing the expansion of social groups and non-governmental
organizations and they have increasingly gained acceptance.
Economic development in Vietnam and China will force these two
countries open up their political systems. Yet, the question
remains as to the extent to which Asian political systems could
adapt to respond to the growth of civil society.
civil society becomes stronger, politics will become the business
of the people than more before. The organizations and institutions,
such as ASEAN, which we have set up, have been at the behests
of governments and leaders. The people have not been involved
much. However, the trend for the future is for the people to
increasingly assume roles in these activities, with the consequence
that governments and leaders will have to adapt in order to
successfully of respond to these changes.
not a few of the countries of this region, there continue to
exist gaps between the rich and the poor, and between urban
and rural areas. In China, India, Indonesia, disparities between
urban areas with economic development and rural ones will become
greater, In Thailand, we are very concerned about this, since
rural poverty is most apparent.
disparities will encourage rural-urban migration. It is estimated
that in the year 2000, Thailands urban population will
increase from 36.6 percent to 43 percent. Simultaneously, migration
across national borders will also increase.
is receiving more illegal migrant labor than ever before, to
the tune of several thousand people, Malaysia the same. This
is something most difficult to eliminate if economic disparities
amongst neighboring countries persist. People from poorer lands
will migrate to seek work in richer neighboring countries, spawning
problems related to urban poverty and cultural differences.
crimes have also been on the increase. Drug trafficking is a
prime example. Thailand has been earnest and strict in its efforts
to fight against this with some success. Yet, Thailand remains
the passageway for drugs. Drug traffickers have become more
sophisticated in their methods and have built up complex networks,
making suppression more difficult. It is believed that the United
States will continue to be concerned to assist Asian efforts
aimed at suppressing drug production and trafficking. Such assistance
would help us move closer to our goal.
degradation is another matter of importance, which requires
cooperation across national borders. Economic development has
led to wasteful use of natural resources in some countries,
with the effect of upsetting the ecological balance across borders.
Rapid industrialization had led to pollution and environmental
destruction. Many Asia countries have tried to remedy this situation.
Japan is one which progressive in environmental protection.
Efficient use of natural resources and energy, effective pollution
control, as well as recycling to minimize resource waste, are
of interest to many Asian countries, but they differ in their
capabilities. Thailand is very concerned and has done much to
protect the environment. Yet environmental destruction continues
to occur. For instance, in 1985 we have some 95,000 sq.kms.
of forest cover but in 1993, only 82,600 sq.kms. remain. Though,
forest conservation and reforestation projects are pursued continuously,
replenishment has not been commensurate with destruction. India
also has problems with wild life protection. There, the number
of wild animals, such as tigers, has decreased to the extent
that they are highly likely to become extinct.
for regional security, the United States is likely to maintain
an important role in fostering security in the Asia Pacific.
Tension in the Korean Peninsula and the difficult relationship
between China and Taiwan will remain significant security issues
in the region. The United States would prefer to see regional
states keeping the exercise a greater role in region secure
such as Japan. Yet Japan itself is undecided and ambiguous about
its own role. It wants the United States to maintain its presence
at present day levels. Another consideration is that Chinas
development of military capabilities many change the balance
of power in the region. The direction of change in the balance
of power remains unclear as Asia approaches the 21st Century.
expansion and the adoption of new technology including telecommunications
have promoted the flow of information including recreational
and cultural traits. Borderless ness becomes more apparent.
Therefore, as we approach the 21st century, change in values,
with materialism and consumerism, are coming in to replace traditional
values, undercutting long-standing ethical standards. Our peoples
will become confused in their identities. This confusion will
on the one hand lead to localization or the attachment
of greater significance to his or her own ethnic and local cultures
the other hand, it will also but differently lead to greater
acceptance of universal or global norms. Therefore, we will
encounter a contradictory trend. Attachment to the nation-state
lessens as societies become borderless; but at the same time
ethnic consciousness and the search for identity in ones own
localities and regions will also mount as a defense against
Western cultural, which accompany technological progress.
The Diversity of Asian Ways Asian Values or the
Asian renaissance, which looks back to cultural
foundations passed on from the past, has become the vogue for
creating the identity of being Asian. It is an expression of
confidence in the successes of states in this region and in
entering the new century as equals with western states.
Asia remains a region with internal diversity in religion, ethnicity,
language and culture. Asian Values is therefore
not the property of any one or two countries to proclaim at
will. Asian Values are diverse, reflecting different cultural
foundations, traditions and histories, even though borderless
ness has become more apparent.
Thai experience is an example of success born of certain strengths,
different from those of other countries in the same region.
It vies for a place in the strength of Asia. The characteristic
value is the middle way, exhibited in the tolerance of differences
and the willingness to assimilate and to adapt to differences.
Should not this cultural trait be admitted as one of the Asian
ways of problem solving in this region as we embark on the 21st
the last five decades, Thailand has confronted numerous problems,
from poverty, political instability, weak democratic governments,
dishonesty of public figures, to the communist threat. Nonetheless,
Thailand has cut through those obstacles and dealt with the
problems with a certain degree of success. Adherence to the
middle way of moderation, perseverance, tolerance of differences
and adaptation has been its strength.
has successfully dealt with the communist threat not through
the primary use of military force but through political means
of achieving understanding and compromise, including the granting
of amnesty together with the eradication of conditions conducive
to communist insurgency. The conditions are, of course poverty,
exploitation by the economic powerful and repression at the
hands of public officials. In dealing with other kinds of political
conflict, one can see tolerance of differences in thought and
attitude and attempts to change so as to reduce differences.
For instance, the Thai military has come to terms with civilian
rule through the electoral process; Parliament has conceded
that a special council popularly constituted for the purpose
will draft our new constitution.
In economic sphere, the 1980s has seen the private sector able
to respond to government policy of export-led growth. Thailand
now has a diverse range of export goods in place of the previous
dependence on a few commodities. This, of course, accounted
for our economic success.
In social and cultural fields, Thailand is exemplary in its
cultural assimilation. Tolerance of differences has ensured
cultures coexisted. We do not oppose the diffusion of western
culture, we are ready to learn about the best in Western culture,
but we will only adopt those aspects, which we can integrate
with ours and which will not destroy what is good in ours. The
issue now is how we can mix Western culture with our traditional
year is in Thailand the year for celebrating His Majesty the
Kings Golden Jubilee. Throughout the last 50 years, His
Majesty has demonstrated himself to be most capable of conjoining
the cultures and traditions of Thai society with the technologies
of the West so as to develop the country and to assist the people,
especially the rural poor. This has been most evident in agriculture,
irrigation and water supply, and forest protection and rejuvenation.
He is engaged in development with due recognition to Thainess,
to promote self-help, and to achieve a balance between material
and spiritual development.
important objective of Asian countries in their march to the
21st Century will be good governance. They ought to be able
to fashion a model of good governance, which blends their unique
heritage with material progress in the midst of the changing
environment. From this process may indeed ensue an alternative
model to the Western one; a model which will demonstrate that
Asia has come of age. Credibility will thus be lent to the belief
that while the 20th Century is the Century of the West, the
21st Century will be the Century of Asia.
21st Century, the golden century for Asia, is arriving. Asian
nations will determine how far this region will progress and
in what direction. They will do so with intellect and understanding,
and with friendly cooperation, so as to achieve sustainable
development in Asia.