Philippines' partners in ASEAN relieved over Marcos-to-Aquino transition

The other five members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations heaved a collective sigh of relief last week, as the Philippines resolved its immediate political crisis. The flawed presidential election and Ferdinand Marcos's insistent clinging to power had caused embarrassment and alarm in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. But shortly after Mr. Marcos left his country, all five countries sent President Corazon Aquino congratulations and pledges of support.

For some time, the Philippines had been the weak link in the ASEAN chain, hampering efforts to coordinate regional economic expansion and to forge a cohesive regional force in world affairs. ASEAN officials have been watching with growing concern the advances of the communist New People's Army and the deteriorating Philippine economy.

Instability in any member country hampered the bloc's image in attracting foreign investment from the developed world, the officials said.

But not wishing to appear to be interfering in Philippine internal affairs, the other ASEAN members remained mute throughout the post-election crisis -- until last weekend's military revolt. They then issued an official joint statement declaring the situation critical, possibly leading to civil war, and urging all Filipinos to act with restraint.

There were various reasons for this concern. Thailand, for example, feared that continued unrest might weaken ASEAN's diplomatic position at a time when the group is facing increased Soviet military pressure -- through a growing naval presence in surrounding waters and, on land, through the Vietnamese military occupation of Cambodia.

ASEAN has been playing a major role at the United Nations and elsewhere in marshalling world opinion against Hanoi and in favor of the anti-Vietnamese Cambodian resistance. The Thais were concerned that this effort would be badly diluted if the group was distracted by one member country's internal political crisis.

Indonesia's reaction was colored by its past experiences with communism, having put down a bloody communist revolt in 1965. For some time, there was a feeling in some Indonesian government circles, as well as in the military, that it was better for Marcos to have won simply because he had proven experience in fighting a communist threat.

Some of the chief Philippine communist strongholds in the south are close to Indonesian territory. According to one source, there was a very real worry in Jakarta that ``ASEAN's cohesion and Indonesia's internal stability'' would be gravely affected by a protracted crisis in Manila that allowed the communist guerillas to make further gains.

Indonesia's other concern was economic. With its economy currently going through a difficult period of readjustment as crude oil prices collapse, the country needed a strong, resilient ASEAN to bolster its own peaceful development.

Similar considerations apply to tiny Singapore, currently struggling through its first post-independence recession.

Some countries, particularly Thailand, were also concerned about how the deteriorating situation in Manila would affect the United States' strategic presence in the region, given the key role played by the two US bases in the Philippines. Debate had even begun in Bangkok over whether Thailand should allow the US to revive its military bases on Thai soil if the Philippine facilities had to be abandoned. But, officially, the Thai government indicated it was not keen on the idea.

But in addition to relief over the Philippine transition, there is also the feeling within ASEAN that not all the problems have been solved.

ASEAN analysts believe Aquino will be able to enjoy the usual ``honeymoon'' period of a new leader -- bolstered by her undoubted popularity. But the Philippines faces complicated, serious problems that defy easy solutions. These include an enfeebled economy and large foreign debt, possible continued factional rivalry in the military, and the possibility of continued of a communist insurgency.

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