Erle Frayne Argonza y Delago
[Writ Quezon City, MetroManila, 22 May 2008. The writer is a technocrat, consultant, social scientist, grassroots worker, and former senior state official.]
The latest Burma cyclone that caused much havoc, with death tolls now past the 100,000 mark, could very well be an occasion for building peace, cooperation and accelerated development in the continental Southeast Asia (Con-SE). That is, if the leaders of the region have the foresight and political will to pursue grand projects aimed at economic and political integration in the near future.
The Burma calamity is also an opportunity for the Burmese leadership (military) to mend its fractured bond not only with its constituents but also with its neighbors who that continue to perceive Burma with ambivalence precisely because of the praetorians’ illegitimate clutch of power. Burma’s development planners could well use the occasion to integrate Burma neatly into the region, attract investments and transform the country into a gateway portal for commerce & trade.
First of all, it must be recognized by various stakeholders within and outside of Burma that the catastrophic results of the cyclone did happen due to a combination of natural and human factors. The indiscriminate extraction/utilization of mangroves as well as the ceaseless and indiscriminate logging operations (past till present times) have imprinted their seemingly permanent damage on the environment. But such damage is not irreversible.
It is now a foregone conclusion that Burma’s development had flattened, and if political instabilities plus impoverishment will continue across the years, massive outflows of Burmese will be the nightmare wave of the region. Burma’s neighbors, more so the highly urbanized ones, will be swamped with migrants from the Myanmar. The migrants might bring along with them warring ethnicities that would become bases for terrorist cell formations later, thus trebling the nightmare of a ‘Burma syndrome’ in ASEAN.
So, the tall order for the ASEAN as a whole is to intervene as much as possible in fast-tracking Burma’s development. And that cannot be done, I think, without an integrated Con-SE development drafted and implemented soon. With this in place, the flow of peoples will more or less be balanced: Con-SE and Islanders-SE (Filipinos, Malaysians, Indonesians, Brueneians) will be moving in with expertise, technology and investments, while Burmese people stay with both jobs and entrepreneurships to keep them going. Competitive Burmese can then move out and seek jobs and business among their neighbors, balancing the in-migration from the latter.
Furthermore, the impetus to development must come from the ‘physical economy’. The Mekong River Project, a gigantic $100 Billion that is now in the pipeline, can be the lynchpin for all the other projects that will arise thereafter. This project has many components, among them irrigation, flood control, power generation, transportation, and tourism. It will also benefit the entire Con-SE and China which is connected to the river system upstream. The Asians have already committed to fund the project themselves and will not need external multilateral agencies at all.
Of course, the ‘green agenda’ must be well integrated into the project. Not only the Mekong but related river systems and areas as far as the sea coasts must move fast to rehabilitate damaged mangrove areas. Electrification from the hydro-plants arising will be exemplar for alternative energy sources to rise, including wind power and solar that the entire ASEAN itself can produce at present. Tourism should better follow the eco-tourism and medical tourism waves. And Indigenous Peoples or IPs should better be served well by the projects rather then they becoming sweat labor cogs in the process.
Second to the integrated Mekong and other river systems project would be a railway system across the Con-SE. An ambitious maglev railway system that will traverse within and across the borders of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore would be exceedingly excellent impetus for rapid change and development, peace and cooperation. The maglev system should then interconnect with India and China, thus creating railway loops that would be part of the emerging Eurasian railway systems.
Reinforcing projects such as gas & oil pipelines that will interconnect all of the ASEAN countries would also be great. Added to these projects would be fiber optic cables that would also connect all of the countries, and interconnect ASEAN with the emerging global fiber optic circuit. Finally, an ASEAN-wide aerospace program be considered, planned, installed and operated in the short run, which will launch satellites for the region, interconnect its countries, and launch and maintain communications satellites for other emerging markets.
Being a ‘citizen’ of ASEAN, I am looking at things from the regional perspective. And, like most fellow ASEANians, 60% of us being now so eager to interrelate, cooperate, and bond in the years ahead (per results of regional survey), I am impatient to see this region move up, eradicate all insurgencies, resolve inter-country animosities, integrate politically, and prosper as one gigantic economic powerhouse.
Failing to achieve such goals, we will be met with perpetual catastrophic cyclones, wars, ‘boat people’ nightmares, and hosts of other malaise that can better be solved if we all act as one. I just wish that the politicians and businessmen of the region would also see things this way. Maybe the businessmen could, but as to politicians, including the most admirable Mahathir, they seem to be mired in the Stone Age of parochial power struggles and localized ethnic mindsets. And I’ve grown exceedingly exasperated with their irrelevant antics.
We surely have a ‘clash of generations’ brewing here, don’t we? The younger ones, myself included, who represent the multi-cultural, postmodern, urban-suburban, space age mindsets are getting impatient at the older ones, who represent the Old Order and are still in power in all sectors, including churches, governments, businesses, civil society and ‘rebel’ sectors. Kenichi Ohmae’s prophecy of this clash is quite correct after all, and the tectonic pressure of the clash is gathering energy each day.
Before that clash would ever ignite into wars of destructive proportions, the older generations better reflect on the emerging realities here. Old perceptions and old formulas don’t work anymore. We should just move on to welcome new paradigms and not squander the great optimism among our ‘ASEAN citizens’ who are waiting to be counted in shaping the new reality.