SE Asia: checking the 'domino theory'

In southeast Asia the "domino theory" has a long past. But does it have a future there? It has been six years since communist revolutionaries came to power in South Vietnam and Cambodia. So far, contrary to the most pessimistic predictions by advocates of the "domino theory," none of the other Southeast Asian nations have "fallen" to communist guerrillas.

But the leaders of noncommunist Southeast Asia are taking no chances.

Countries like Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines, where there are communist-oriented guerrilla movements see a danger that stepped-up support for insurgents by an outside power could threaten the region's stability.

Indonesia, which brutally suppressed its China-oriented Communist Party in 1965, is still concerned that Peking might someday aid a comeback attempt.

This is why Southeast Asian leaders press China for firmer assurances that it will refrain from stirring up revolution in Southeast Asia. This is also why China -- so eager to gain Southeast Asian support against "Soviet expansionism" -- feels compelled to reassure its Southeast Asian neighbors.

So far China has only partly succeeded in providing convincing reassurances.

Southeast Asian leaders are not satisfied with Chinahs explanation that aid for communist revolutionaries is limited to "political and moral" support. Nor do they always accept Peking's argument that if it severs fraternal "party to party" links with the region's guerrilla movements, the Soviet Union and Vietnam would step in and take over.

There is an underlying suspicion that China keeps contact with guerrillas to hold a club over the heads of Southeast Asian governments, should they openly defy Peking.

The rift has persisted despite China's increased coopertion with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the campaign for Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia. Numerous diplomatic excursions have sought to bridge the gap.

The latest is Chinese Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang's swing through the Philippines, Malaysia. Singapore, and Thailand. This follows visits by Mr. Zhao to Thailand and Burma.

Viewed as the toughest parts of Mr. Zhao's assignment were his stops in Malaysia and Singapore. Both of these countries strongly oppose China's involvement with the China-oriented Comunist Party of Malaya.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was reported to have vigorously pressed his case in private in Peking last November.

Continuing disagreement again became public after Mr. Zhao's visit to Malaysia.

Before he took office earlier this year, Malaysian Foreign Minister Tan Sri Ghazali, had attacked China's policy toward Southeast Asian nations as "two faced." He called China as great a threat to Southeast Asia as the Soviet Union.

After Prime Minister Zhao's visit, Mr. Ghazali said his government could not accept the Chinese explanation for continuing relations between Peking and the outlawed Communist Party of Malaya.

Mr. Zhao had been quoted as saying that if Peking did not "handle the situation properly," the Soviet Union and Vietnam would fill the vacuum and exploit communist parties in the region.

"We do not agree with that in Malaysia," Tan Sri Ghazali said. "I do not know the situation with the Thai or Burmese communist Parties, but I am certain it is not possible for the Communist Party of Malaya, with its present leaders and present membership, to establish a link with the Soviets or the Vietnamese.

"The whole leadership of the Communist Party of Malaya is composed ethnically of Chinese and more than 80 percent of the members are Chinese," he said.

China has moved to allay Southeast Asian suspicions. A year ago it closed the radio station in China that broadcast to Thailand propaganda of the Thai Communist Party.

At the end of June this year China closed the Voice of Malayan Revolution, a southern China radio station that was broadcasting to Malaysia propaganda of the Communist Party of Malaya. But the impact of this step was quickly undermined. The very next day a new station, the new Voice of Malayan Democracy, resumed the propaganda broadcasts, this time from southern Thailand.

Meanwhile the China-oriented Communist movements in both Thailand and Burma began to change their tune.

China's move toward co-operation with the Thai government in an effort to end Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia had a sharp impact on the Thai Communist Party. Chinese material support for the revolutionaries declined. Efforts by the party's China-oriented leaders to adapt to Peking's new policy caused splits in the revolutionary ranks.

Many young members defected from the party's jungle hide-outs. Thai officials seized the opportunity to step up operations against guerrillas. The result is a new communist policy of offering to negotiate with the Thai government. Copying a lesson from China, the Thai Communist Party is apparently seeking to form a "united front" with the government against the No. 1 enemy, Vietnam.

So far, Thai officials have refused open negotiations, but left the door open to secret talks. Bangkok wants to avoid any public move that would increase the party's stature.

In Burma there have been similar changes. Last September the Burma Communist Party offered to open talks with Burma's President Ne Win.The President met with Burma Communist Party chairman Ba Thein Thin in China in October. It was widely assumed that that Burma's communists were being urged by Peking to make a deal.

But in Burma communist guerrillas firmly control important strategic areas near China. The talks broke down. According to Ne Win, the communists set unacceptable conditions: that their party and armed forces be recognized and that their "liberated zones" along the Chinese border continue to exist.

So, despite Prime Minister Zhao's tour, there is still no sign the basic problem has been solved. china's need for better relations with the ASEAN countries has clearly lowered Paking's fervor for revolution abroad. But so long as China maintains its links with guerrilla groups, the "domino theory" never completely disappears.

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