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Barun Roy: Tale of two Asias

Written By vibykhmer on Thursday, March 12, 2009 | 8:13 AM

Business Standard

Unlike Cambodia and China, the sub-continent hasn't managed to rise above its old conflicts

Barun Roy / New Delhi March 12, 2009

Unlike countries like Cambodia and China, the sub-continent hasn't managed to rise above its old conflicts.

The beginning, last month, in Cambodia, of a process to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to trial for their role in a reign of genocide in the 1970s that left at least 1.7 million people dead, is meant to formally close a chapter of Cambodian history that nobody wants to remember.
Cambodia has outlived its fractious past and is moving convincingly towards a future of common economic well-being with the rest of Southeast Asia. Vietnam, once a hated intruder, is no longer an enemy, and friendly relations with Thailand, Laos, and China have produced a surge in investments, tourism, and trade. Growth averaged 9.4 per cent annually through the last decade and per capita GDP doubled between 1998 and 2007.

Two things have made Cambodia’s current economic success possible: Peace and political stability. Just the two things that are behind Vietnam’s success, too, whose political tolerance and economic realism, setting aside decades of bloody ideological enmities, have surprised the entire world and paved the way for the emergence of Asia’s next China.

In fact, peace and political stability have marked the recent history of a part of Asia — north, northeast, and southeast — that also happens to be its wealthiest. There’s a connection and it shouldn’t be forgotten. Malaysia hasn’t let May 1969 return to haunt it again. Ominous clouds of civil war no longer hang over the Philippines, where Muslim Mindanao has found a way to live within a mainly Christian nation. China, born again in 1979 when it opened out to the world and much wiser after the misadventures of the Cultural Revolution, has steadfastly refused to let social and political upheavals come in its way. Tienanmen Square and Tibet were but over-publicised local disturbances that were in no position to topple the Chinese applecart.

Preserving conditions for peaceful, undisturbed economic growth has been so uppermost in China’s mind, that it has done everything to avoid a physical confrontation with Taiwan, despite all kinds of provocations from across the straits. Hong Kong and Macau have been annexed but not swallowed. India has been left alone and spared even of threats and postures. Closer links have been forged with Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam to create a credible climate of confidence and goodwill. One can no longer deny that China, with its policy of positive accommodation with its neighbours, has played a key role in the continuance of economic prosperity in a large part of the Asian region.

On the other hand, look at South Asia, a sub-region ridden with deep conflicts and, not surprisingly, deep poverty. Bangladesh began as a killing field and remains so after 40 years. Nepal, having ousted its king, is struggling to find its political feet and a Constitution good enough to overcome all local dissensions. Pakistan is on the verge of ruin brought on by its own misguided politics. Sri Lanka is trapped in a deadly, long-running civil war that has left at least 70,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands more homeless, and even if it ends after the government’s last-ditch, almost genocidal, push against pro-independence Tamil rebels, will Sri Lanka have the peace and stability to grow?

India is not in any better shape either. Its political stability is more apparent than real, and now that it has begun to appear on terrorists’ radar screens, it can lose its peace, too. The only reason India is still able to absorb the shocks and maintain a healthy rate of growth is its vast size. Because of it, even major disturbances look, in popular perception, like isolated local events. But the way discontent is spreading across the country and politics, stripped of basic decencies and broad ideals, is getting fractured around narrow groups, vested interests, petty loyalties, and local dissatisfaction, that won’t be the case anymore. Intolerance keeps growing and mutinies multiply. Fires are rising one after another and one can already feel the heat.

In a situation like this, attention is bound to be distracted from development, and development is bound to lose its focus. India has done very little since independence to find the causes of its many domestic mutinies and douse them. It has done even less to build bridges to its neighbours or remove the causes of their apprehensions. The result is we still have vast segments of our society trapped in the deprivation they’ve always known, in angers and frustrations they increasingly feel. We’ve Kandhamals and Mangalores and Godhras and Guwahatis that make us wonder if our nation is indeed one. And we’ve neighbours with whom we only have a relationship of mutual distrust.

We had no reason to become a target of terrorism. We could have been a China to South Asia, leading its climb to success. Instead, we’re victims ourselves, being helplessly sucked into the vortex of our own failures.


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