At the present time it is tempting to see little else than conflict and tension throughout much of the world. But in the midst of considerable international turmoil Southeast Asia stands as an area of relative stability and progress.
The region still confronts numerous problems from the aftermath of the Vietnam war, but in many ways it has moved steadily toward a more secure and prosperous future. Except for Vietnam, it has become a bright spot in a troubled world.
Significant progress has come from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) consisting of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. In spite of the enormous diversity caused by Buddhist, Islamic, Confucian, and Christian cultures as well as markedly different historical backgrounds, this regional organization has developed into an effective force in promoting higher economic and social standards among the member countries.
ASEAN has established a variety of specialized committees dealing with such areas as agriculture, industry, forestry, trade, tourism, science and technology. It has sponsored regional industrial projects including urea factories in Indonesia and Malaysia and rock salt soda ash plants in Thailand. It has set up formal relations with the European Economic Community, and it cooperates closely with the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Nations. Already a few leaders in Southeast Asia are proposing a ''common market'' within the region.
Since the mid-1970s ASEAN has subscribed to the goal envisioned by the late Tun Razak of Malaysia to make the region a ''zone of peace, freedom, and neutrality.'' This purpose in theory seeks to remove big-power rivalry from Southeast Asia as the most effective strategy in preserving the security of each member nation. In practice the ASEAN nations have assumed a decidedly anticommunist posture. They are opposing the Vietnamese military occupation of Kampuchea as well as Vietnamese incursions into eastern Thailand. ASEAN likewise has successfully blocked efforts by Vietnam and the Soviet Union to give the Kampuchea seat in the UN General Assembly to the Vietnamese-imposed regime in Phnom Penh.
In the economic realm, the ASEAN countries are moving gradually from an agricultural base to a semi-industrialized status. Within a few years many of their exports of manufactured goods and semi-processed materials will surpass the income from the sale of agricultural products. This advancement has been made possible by the infrastructure built during roughly two decades of sizable American and other foreign aid.
Today a policy of reducing government involvement in economic affairs in each country combined with effective use of foreign loans and foreign investment is further accelerating the pace of economic development. Since 1977 the ASEAN countries have achieved economic growth rates averaging between 5 to 10 percent, among the highest in the world.
Another bright spot in the region is the beginning of a peaceful transfer of power in Burma. After 20 years of authoritarian rule, General Ne Win is gradually yielding leadership to a group of younger military officers who may move their long isolated country closer to global and regional channels of modernization. The rigid socialist policies of the past are being relaxed, and a combination of foreign loans and more economic freedom has produced a growth rate of more than 7 percent since 1977. Burma is still economicaly backward compared to its ASEAN neighbors, but it is coming out of a long era of stagnation.
The Democratic Republic of Vietnam is the most notable exception to the trend toward progress and stability in Southeast Asia. Instead of fostering peace and higher economic and social conditions since its military conquest of South Vietnam, the ruling regime in Hanoi has brought increasing hardships and deprivation to its 54 million people. It has maintained an army of 1 million men (the fourth largest in the world) which has been used in the 1978 invasion of Kampuchea and the 1979 border war with communist China.
The Vietnamese government continues to imprison between 100,000 to 200,000 persons who formerly served in the bureaucracy or the armed forces of South Vietnam. Reports from escaped prisoners tell of harsh conditions in these ''reeducation centers'' including beatings, torture, and executions.
Some Vietnamese prisoners have been sent to work in the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Bulgaria to relieve labor shortages in these industrialized communist countries and to repay the costs of Soviet military aid to Vietnam.
Political suppression and economic adversity in Vietnam have persuaded tens of thousands of ''boat people'' to flee their country since 1975, a movement which has enabled the Hanoi government to collect over $4 billion in unofficial exit fees. Many hundreds of Vietnamese have perished at sea or are languishing in foreign refugee camps.
Only large-scale Soviet assistance averaging $5 million per day has kept the Vietnamese government from economic collapse. In spite of its fertile soil and vast natural resources, Vietnam today has one of the lowest living standards in the world.
Regardless of a possible military threat from Vietnam, the six noncommunist countries in the region expect to achieve more progress during the next several years. A major challenge is to attain a proper balance between national security and economic development while also encouraging a responsible role in the area by the major world powers. If this balance continues, many people in Southeast Asia can look forward to a relatively secure and promising future.