Is Southeast Asia’s history trap hindering progress?

Southeast Asia experienced its “end of history” moment in the late 1990s, with the region free of colonialism and the end of revanchism. All Southeast Asian countries, except Timor-Leste, were members of ASEAN, and Communist Vietnam and Laos were stable and internationally accepted. Anti-communist tyrants like Indonesia’s Suharto, Burma’s Ne Win, and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines either resigned or were ousted.

The worst crimes of the Cold War-era, including the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, were over, and justice was finally sought. However, in February 2021, the military coup in Myanmar revealed that some elements of the pre-Cold War period had not been solved. Myanmar has been trapped in the early 20th century since independence from Britain in 1948, and anti-colonial struggles are both conflicts against a foreign aggressor and civil wars at the same time.

The partition of Vietnam was both a conflict against a foreign aggressor and a civil war, with political schisms being latent under Nordom Sihanouk’s regime that ruled after independence. Southeast Asia must determine what kind of self it wants once free, as anti-colonial struggles are both conflicts against a foreign aggressor and civil wars at the same time.

The People’s Power uprising in the Philippines in 1986 was a response to the question of constitutional or personalist rule in the Philippines after gaining independence from Spain in 1898. However, Myanmar never went through this process, and successive military juntas failed to seriously explore the question of self-determination of its ethnic minorities. The 1962 coup effectively frozen the question of self-determination, leaving Myanmar under the military as a colonial holdout.

The 2021 military coup is expected to bring a proper solution to this historical question. The anti-junta movement, centered on the National Unity Government, proposes a revolutionary federal state with more power and autonomy for ethnic areas while dissolving the national army. The junta’s answer is devolution based on the permission of a central authority, implemented through peace talks.

However, this answer is dependent on the whims of the current general in Naypyidaw, further delay in answering the post-colonial civil war question. Despite this, some observers believe that the forces of revolution are prevailing in Myanmar. Southeast Asia seems unwilling to accept a historical reckoning in Myanmar for progress. ASEAN still does not accept Myanmar’s entrance into ASEAN in 1997, which institutionalized civil-war conflicts into the regional system.

The ASEAN bloc’s acceptance of Myanmar has led to the region unwittingly accepting a share of responsibility for solving historical conflicts. However, ASEAN continues to insist on returning to the status quo, which would leave the region with the situation of Myanmar’s 20th-century conflicts sparking another similar crisis in the future. This trap traps ASEAN in thinking that Myanmar is unique and its responsibility is to forestall, not assist, this process.

Southeast Asia is caught in a historical trap, believing that the post-Cold War era is still alive. The region, apart from China, was the biggest beneficiary of the world order left after the collapse of communism in Europe. However, the period between 1989 and 2019 can be referred to as the “Chimerica Era” or the “Inter-Cold War Era.” Southeast Asian leaders still believe they can deny its disappearance by repeatedly stating their opposition to the “New Cold War,” hoping that Washington and Beijing will finally see sense and agree on a shared vision for the future.

Hedging involves taking both sides, rather than taking neither side, which is problematic if there is a possibility of both sides going to war. Southeast Asian leaders have been jubilant that the horrors of the 20th century were over and their societies could finally have stability and prosperity thanks to the Inter-Cold War Era. However, the world is now more unstable and unpredictable, including in ASEAN’s northwest. Nostalgia for times past will only get them so far.

ASEANCambodiaCold War-eraIs Southeast Asia's history trap hindering progress?Southeast AsiaSoutheast Asia countriesVietnam