Norman Rockwell - The Peace Corps - JFK's Bold Legacy, 1966

American Volunteerism in Southeast Asia: Another Step Forward in Re-Engagement


American volunteerism is expanding in Southeast Asia. The Peace Corps, a volunteer organization affiliated with the US government that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is growing beyond its traditional posts in the Philippines and Thailand to include active presence in Cambodia and Indonesia. Soon, American volunteers—not affiliated with the Corps—will also be active in Malaysia. This regional expansion of American volunteerism is bolstering US-Southeast Asia relations, as it reinforces mutual interests despite a complicated history and builds a stronger foundation for closer ties between the United States and countries in the region.

Following the establishment of its Cambodia operation in 2007, the Peace Corps returned to Indonesia in 2010. By mid-2011, 45 volunteers had taken up two-year assignments teaching English at schools in East Java. By 2012, the Peace Corps hopes to triple the number of its volunteers since its return to Indonesia.

When Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak met President Obama in 2010, he introduced a proposal to bring American volunteers to Malaysia “specifically to teach English.” In response, the US and Malaysian governments have negotiated an agreement that would let thirty American volunteers serve in rural areas of Malaysia later in 2011.

National Geographic Peace Corps cover, 1964.

This recent expansion of American volunteerism is surprising because a quick look into its complicated history in Southeast Asia would suggest a different trajectory. During the Peace Corps’ initial brief presence in Indonesia from 1963 to 1965, volunteers faced harassment from Indonesian Communists and suspicion from prickly Indonesian nationalists. Because of domestic turmoil and US involvements in the country during the Cold War, Cambodia was off limits to Americans until the country stabilized in the mid-1990s. Only American volunteerism in Malaysia has a less problematic history, as the Peace Corps exited Malaysia in 1983 because of the country’s rapid economic development.

However, a changed international environment after 9/11 and Southeast Asia’s continued importance to the United States has led to US government reengagement with the region. This reengagement means cooperation beyond security and strategic issues, and includes volunteerism. In 2007, the US government decided to lift a ban on direct bilateral aid to Cambodia that had been in effect since Prime Minister Hun Sen seized power in 1997. In 2010, the United States and Indonesia also committed “to broaden, deepen, and elevate bilateral relations,” under the rubric of the US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership. New leadership in the United States and Malaysia, furthermore, has aligned to bring bilateral relations to a higher level. While President Obama declared himself “America’s first Pacific president,” Prime Minister Najib directed his cabinet colleagues to “look West.”

Inviting American volunteers is an obvious sign that these Southeast Asian countries are interested in better relations with the United States.

Notwithstanding criticisms about the Peace Corps’ operation and costs, the extended presence of American volunteers is good US strategy. After their return from service, American volunteers are, in the words of a critic of the Peace Corps, “aware of—and frequently very committed to—global development” and form a constituency of Americans with personal ties to their service countries. There are few better ways to sustain and develop US links with the region than expanding the number of Americans with personal and professional ties to Southeast Asia.