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S.E. Asian Dominos Fell Other Way

April 24, 2000

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ The rueful joke, back in 1975, was that if Vietnamese troops invaded Thailand, the only thing to stop them from knifing on through Malaysia to Singapore was Bangkok’s traffic.

Today, troops could skirt the thriving Thai capital on freeway overpasses. But Vietnam is now peaceable and, in any case, so impoverished it would have trouble scraping up cash for the tollbooths.

The domino theory, a multifaceted scenario of communist contagion that brought America into the Vietnam War, has slipped into history. Cambodia fell, and so did Laos. Elsewhere, though, Southeast Asia boomed with free-market capitalism.

Even in distant hindsight, those who lived through the era of teetering dominoes are divided over how serious the threat was.

``If Americans had not fought in Vietnam, Thailand would be communist today,″ pronounced Maj. Gen. Bunchon Chawansin, former head of military intelligence against guerrillas in southern Thailand.

``No way,″ countered Thongchai Suwanvihok, who as Comrade Chaung was Bunchon’s enemy in a bloody jungle war. ``We would never have won. The Thai society and culture would not support communism.″

But the two men, now like-minded fishing buddies who were interviewed together, agree on an overriding lesson of the Vietnam War: dominoes and nations have little in common.

Thongchai, site manager for a private power company, says Thai communist leaders rejected Vietnam’s offer of 50,000 men, with heavy armor, to seize eastern Thailand between the Cambodian border and Bangkok.

``We opposed American imperialism, but we did not want to give up our country to anyone else, either,″ he said. ``Rural farmers only supported us because they wanted a better life, and we promised that.″

Bunchon said the government realized that in 1980. ``Instead of trying to kill every communist we could, like in Vietnam, we tried reconciliation,″ he said. ``We developed rural areas. They stopped fighting. It was amazing.″

Meanwhile, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines pooled resources to create the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. If the thrust was economic, defense issues were close behind.

At the beginning, Singapore Trade Minister George Yeo once remarked, ASEAN’s members came together as ``frightened, huddled sheep.″ Before long, the metaphor shifted to economic tigers.

Vietnam ended up joining ASEAN in 1995, followed by Laos and Cambodia, but its role in a region dominated by business is a pale shadow of the military and political power it once had.

``Well, I could use the word minuscule,″ Ian Buchanan, a Southeast Asian specialist with Booz-Allen & Hamilton in Singapore, replied when asked to assess Vietnam’s impact on regional affairs.

Vietnam has enormous potential. At 76 million, its population is second only to Indonesia in a country of rich earth and varied beauty. Despite lingering suspicion of outsiders, tourism is growing.

By most measures, however, neighbors that once feared its shadow now tower above it. Vietnam’s annual gross domestic product ranges above $300 a person. Thailand’s is 10 times higher. Singapore’s is 100 times as much.

``Vietnam needs a next step of bold reform, but they don’t seem to have the political courage to do it,″ said Daljit Singh, of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

In 1986, as its Soviet ally liberalized with perestroika, Vietnam’s ``doi moi″ _ renovation _ policies opened up the economy. Until 1995, its gross domestic product grew more than 8 percent a year. Foreigners flocked in to invest.

Singh said the early promise evaporated because of red tape, corruption and discord within the government over how much freedom to allow in the tightly controlled state economy. Asia’s 1997 economic crisis added a crippling blow.

``At first ASEAN partners thought they would benefit from the ability to organize, focus and work hard that Vietnam showed in the war,″ Singh said. ``These days, we’ve forgotten all about that.″

Vietnamese officials say they are moving with care, having seen from the region’s 1997 crisis that unbridled capitalism could knock them over like a domino from the other direction.

``We have to prepare ourselves adequately before we expose ourselves to (capital) flows,″ said Le Linh Lan of Vietnam’s Institute for International Relations. ``Opening up our economy in a rush to catch up may be counterproductive.″

With neither convertible currency nor a stock market, Vietnam suffered most as others began to recover, she said, ``and the impact was quite severe and enduring.″

However Vietnam develops, analysts agree, that fearful domino theory seems today like a curious footnote of overestimation.

In an ``eyes only″ document dated July 15, 1975, declassified only this year, the U.S. National Security Council advised Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that Vietnam was a much greater threat than its neighbors realized.

``Most nations in Asia apparently believe that revolutionary warfare of the Vietnamese model, like a car accident, is something that happens to other people,″ it said.

Malaysia, Singapore and Australia, it added, sought more U.S. protection after the war in what the memo called ``the reverse domino effect, as countries that felt safe now begin to wonder.″

From the perspective of 25 years, the former Thai enemies can joke about the threat without that touch of rue.

``It seems very funny now,″ Gen. Bunchon said. ``We laugh about where we each were when the other was shooting, about trying to trick each other. I learned that if you treat everyone fairly, guerrillas cannot win.″

Thongchai expressed relief he opposed Vietnam’s proposal that its soldiers come to help the Communist Party of Thailand. ``I am very happy that we did not make that big mistake.″

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