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
Interestingly, Johnson’s remarks at
Subang are found online under the title, The American Presidency
Project, by Gerhard Peters and John Woolley
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
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.