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The Advent of the 21st Century: The Rise of Asia

H.E. General Prem Tinsulanonda
November 26, 1996
Dusit Thani Hotel, Bangkok

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Past Experiences

Over 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 Asia’s success story, projecting it as a region of economic progress, wealth, security, peace and harmony.

Fifty 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 Indonesia’s 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”.

To 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.

In 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.

During 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 inefficiency.

However, 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.

Toward the 21st century

Today 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.

It 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.

The 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.

Democracy 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.

Japan has been attempting to deal with the problem of “money politics” through reform of the election system by combining proportional representation and single-member constituency’s 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.

It 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.

Cooperation 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.

A 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.

The 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.

In 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.

It 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.

In 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.

In 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.

As 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 country’s 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 states.

In 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.

Problems to be confronted

Even 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 21st Century.

A 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.

However, 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.

Thailand 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.

As 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.

In 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.

These disparities will encourage rural-urban migration. It is estimated that in the year 2000, Thailand’s urban population will increase from 36.6 percent to 43 percent. Simultaneously, migration across national borders will also increase.

Thailand 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.

International 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.

Environmental 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.

As 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 China’s 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.

Economic 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 and traditions.

On 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.

However, 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.

The 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 century.

In 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.

Thailand 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 culture.

This year is in Thailand the year for celebrating His Majesty the King’s 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.

An 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.

The 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.

Prem Tinsulanonda Center for International Education, Chiang Mai, Kingdom of Thailand