The New Dominoes
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The New Dominoes

Because of the domino theory, we sent 2.7 million Americans to fight the communists in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, in rice paddies and deep jungle canopy far from home.

Generals and politicians told us we had to fight, because if South Vietnam fell to communism, Thailand, Singapore, India and the Middle East would follow.

As it turned out, the theory was wrong. The dominoes never fell. Used to justify a war that resulted in 58,000 U.S. dead, the domino theory would remain a historical footnote for the next 40 years.

After the communists took Saigon, Phnom Penh and Vientiane in 1975, the red wave stalled. In Thailand, nationalism and a beloved king blocked the domino effect. Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and other U.S. allies in Southeast Asia all relied on capitalism, free markets, nationalism and the U.S. nuclear umbrella to guarantee security.

The only dominoes falling were the gray and unproductive socialist systems that emerged in Indochina after the end of the conflict. These planned economies took a decade to smell the coffee, then decided to try to end their poverty and join free-market capitalism. Those moves toward free markets swept across China and Vietnam, bringing prosperity but without freedom and democracy.

Now a new wave of dominoes – call them bamboo dominoes – is falling as countries neighboring Indochina give up their freedoms. They want the benefits of capitalism without all the lip from bloggers and democracy groups. The result is a rising wave of authoritarian regimes from Burma to Thailand to Indonesia.

Journalists are jailed or exiled. Human rights groups are banned and shuttered. Opposition political leaders are arrested, beaten or barred from disseminating views contrary to those of the government.

Burma, for example, shrugged off British colonial legal systems but made a small feint toward democracy in 2014. Before and since, it remains a repressive country. It has long used fear of ethnic rebellions to rally unquestioning support for violent military rule. Hill tribe fighters who made it through malarial jungles to the Thai border have told me of rape, murder, burning villages, forcible recruitment and other terror by Burma’s army. When peace talks seemed to bear fruit, the fighting would reignite, possibly to gain support from the ethnic Burmese who are the core of the country.

Some say Burma has never seriously moved toward democracy and is an anchor of repression ready for the new bamboo curtain in Southeast Asia. “Things have gone from bad to worse,” says Tom Andrews, president of United to End Genocide, a group that monitors violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma, according to Foreign Policy.

The dread that communist dominoes would push into free U.S. allies in Southeast Asia has been replaced. Instead of communism, it is hard-line authoritarianism that is taking over our former allies – a bamboo curtain, spreading underneath the national borders like bamboo in a backyard.

“Not since World War II has liberal democracy seemed so deeply endangered in so many places,” says Dan Slater, director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, writing in the East Asia Forum. 

“This is a region where authoritarian regimes have always easily outnumbered democracies, and where liberalism and universalism have always struggled to gain traction .... Southeast Asia is and always has been well on its way to being a democratic abyss.”

The shift to authoritarianism is partly due to local cultures that tend to frown on free exchanges of criticism. History plays a role, too: the United States after the Vietnam War gradually withdrew from the whole of Southeast Asia, seeing it as a failure despite the best intentions.

Murray Hiebert is a Southeast Asia expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. In 1991, we traveled together in a car across Cambodia from Phnom Penh to Battambang, where at night we heard Vietnamese artillery pounding Khmer guerrillas on the Thai border.

Hiebert recently revisited Vietnam and found it booming. It seeks closer ties to Washington, in part to fend off the sticky embrace of giant China. Beijing is frightening smaller neighbors as it builds the Belt and Road Initiative to spread China’s trade and influence globally. And China is not talking about human rights.

 The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a new trade pact meant to economically link the United States with smaller Asian nations, including in Southeast Asia. Like NAFTA, the TTP would have helped all member states get duty-free access to the U.S. economy – and U.S. exporters to get free access to the growing Asian markets. But President Trump pulled out of the accord, and it now languishes as China expands.

The countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations want trade with China but also want U.S. engagement in the region “as a hedge in case China gets rough,” Hiebert says. Yet these concerns are pushing our former allies toward dictatorship in hopes of fending off the growing Chinese power.

Consider today the levels of democracy and freedom in a region U.S. soldiers gave their lives to defend:

Thailand has plunged into authoritarian rule by the army that seized power four years ago. When I was a journalist based in Bangkok in the 1980s, the Thai newspapers were fairly free and honest. In the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, reporters joked that the Vietnamese would never make a domino out of Thailand because Vietnam’s tanks and troops could never get through traffic. And that traffic meant a booming economy. Aside from avoiding all criticism of the widely admired late king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, you felt you were in a mostly democratic country with a lively press and politics. No more. The king has passed away, and the military is tightening its grip on power.

Cambodia has been ruled by the increasingly authoritarian Hun Sen since 1979. He recently jailed opposition party leaders and closed the last free newspaper, Cambodia Daily. Sen’s ties to China are growing ever stronger, allowing him to spurn Western concerns about human rights.

Malaysia is essentially a one-party state whose leader, Najib Razak, was accused of massive corruption and fraud, lost a bid for re-election and is now under arrest.

Singapore has long been ruled by a one-party government founded by the late Lee Kuan Yew. He called the strict system of social and political control the Asian Way, which he believed to be superior to the chaotic, democratic West.

Burma’s long-ruling military allowed free elections in 2015, which brought Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi into Parliament. But she has no real power. She also failed to criticize the expulsion of 600,000 minority Muslim Rohingyas to Bangladesh earlier this year.

Elected in 2016, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte abolished some civil rights and ordered police to kill all suspected drug users or dealers. He also turned toward China as a model, ignoring Chinese occupation of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea that are claimed by five nations.

More and more, Indonesia is in the thrall of Muslim hard-liners, who in 2017 voted out the first Christian mayor of Jakarta over blasphemy accusations.

Hiebert notes that a wave of liberal, semi-democratic leaders swept the region in the previous decade (the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand), somewhat opening up their press and electoral systems. The U.S. nuclear umbrella helped the region grow with few security concerns in the 1980s, supporting democratically elected leaders. Yet much of Southeast Asia finds the confrontational politics of democracy to be unnerving. Leaders find that loss of face when opponents voice criticism is a humiliation that if left unanswered weakens their hold on power.

Gradually things started changing. In Burma and other tightly controlled societies, the introduction of cellphones, the Internet, and independent radios and TV stations caused leaders to shrink back from democracy. “Democracy is nascent – brand-new,” Hiebert says.

The reduction of U.S. military and diplomatic engagement in the region after the Vietnam War allowed the shift to hard-line rulers.

China has become a more important market than the United States for several of these countries. Beijing buys their rice and motorbikes and sends millions of Chinese tourists flush with cash from China’s explosive economic growth.

The United States still conducts extensive exercises with Thai and other militaries in the region. But it is a far cry from the 1980s, when the Navy and Air Force had bases at Subic Bay and Clark in the Philippines.

The residual power of U.S. forces in the region was seen during the 2004 tsunami off Indonesia, which killed more than 230,000 people across the Indian Ocean. From the wreckage of Banda Aceh, I saw survivors peering through the maritime haze at the gray shape of the carrier Abraham Lincoln, which raced from Singapore to bring food, medicine and water. But even humanitarian interventions, which assist millions each year around the world, are quickly forgotten as the drumbeat of Chinese power spreads.

Vietnam recently objected to China moving a drilling rig into South China Sea waters claimed by both countries. When Hanoi sent patrol boats to observe, they were quickly driven off by superior Chinese boats.

Then, when Vietnam sent its own drilling rig into contested waters, China warned it to stop, which it did.

Feared and admired by smaller nations, China and Russia are now leading a worldwide resurgence of authoritarianism, especially in Southeast Asia. Russia backed Hanoi with weapons during the Vietnam War, contributing to the U.S. death toll. We paid it back in the 1980s by arming Afghan mujahedeen fighters, who used our Stinger missiles against their helicopters.

Today Russia is a regional authoritarian leader rather than a global threat, focused on backing authoritarian movements in what was once called the Soviet Union’s “near abroad”: Hungary, Ukraine, the Baltics, the Balkans, Georgia, Armenia, the Central Asian “stans” and even Turkey, Syria and Venezuela.

In Southeast Asia, where so many Americans put their lives on the line for people who wanted democracy and freedom, it is China undermining political, social and religious freedom.

In countries from Indonesia to Iran, U.S. efforts to nurture democracy have come up against ancient cultures that do not honor or appreciate the rough-and-tumble of Western-style democracy. Our harvest after so many years of engaging their leaders in trade, diplomacy and education is meager at best. At worst, we face a new generation of leaders who understand American democracy but simply don’t want it to take root in their homelands.  

Ben Barber has been a journalist for more than 30 years. His articles have been published in The Washington Times, USA Today, the London Observer, The Huffington Post and McClatchy newspapers.