A collection of radically different nations develops an identity based on shared goals and aspirations.
In many respects, it’s amazing that Asean has persisted as a regional organization with no defections for 44 years. During that time, membership has expanded and there are now more countries such as East Timor and Papua New Guinea, knocking on the door to join. There are vast differences among the 10 countries at every level, including economic development (Singapore-Laos), form of government (authoritarian, communist, democratic, sultanate,) social and educational development and religious (Buddhist, Christian, Muslim). Four astute observers within Asean from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand address issues in Asean cohesiveness in these questions posed by Asean Affairs.
Q: In recent years in the economic sphere, “cracks” have appeared in the EU (Ireland, Greece, Spain) weakening the unity of the organization. What can Asean learn from this development?
Chirathivat: In fact, Asean learned a great deal from the last Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998. Hopefully, we will not repeat the kind of experience that is actually happening in the EU at the moment. Several member states of Asean have strengthened the governance systems e.g. making more accountability and transparency in its financial institutions as well as in the rules of law, while broadening monetary cooperation at the regional level under the Chiang Mai Initiative.
Yong: Asean is different from the EU. The level of integration in Asean is not yet comparable to that in the EU. To put it in another way, Asean remains an intergovernmental organization in Southeast Asia. The EU has supranational mandate and it has the euro zone with a single currency. The most important thing Asean has to do is to move one step at a time and at a pace comfortable to member states. For example, in the area of financial cooperation, Asean is focused on doing what is necessary to have stable exchange rates for the currencies of the respective member states.
Raslan: A key lesson from the EU experience is that economic integration should be done gradually, all the more so if there are disparities among the nations of a particular region. The process of integration can only take place if there’s strong political will and commitment. In the EU, nations with dynamic economies – such as Germany, have had to shoulder the burden of bailouts for financially weaker member states.
In hindsight, it is a good thing that we did not try to get ahead of ourselves and rush the economic integration process. Having said that, now Southeast Asia aspires to achieve a single market and production base by realizing the Asean Economic Community (AEC) 2015, which in my opinion is a gradual process that is doable.
Muhiz: This “cracking” in the EU emphasises the need for Asean to determine what it really stands for. If the purported “unity” of Asean is exaggerated we may well fall into the same trap.
Q: Would a western-style “Asean Bill of Rights” for its citizens be an equalizer or would it ignite divisiveness?Chirathivat: Asean as a whole has an underscored development gap among its member states and its citizens. Therefore, the new Asean Charter put in place human rights as high priority to be achieved in the distant future. Everyone knows that each member state is still diverse for its democratic aspirations, movements and development. What has happened in Myanmar and Laos PDR is different from Thailand and Singapore, for example. This means it will take some time for Asean citizens to learn about Asean identity, Asean community, and their own rights.
Yong: It is simplistic to talk about an “Asean Bill of Rights” because the conditions in each of the Asean member states are different and the application of non-organic concepts is not the remedy
for a particular situation. With the Asean Charter, there is a rules-based regime which will facilitate a positive development going forward.
Raslan: There is a strong case for an Asean Bill of Rights. Of course, enforcement and implementation would be a major challenge.
Muhiz: Such a bill would only be possible and legitimate if initiated and ratified by democratic governments in member countries.
Without this prerequisite it would be a needless magnet for divisiveness.
Q: Within several Asean countries (Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia), there are problems with Muslim insurgencies. Can Asean do anything to address these conflicts?
Chirathivat: Asean has to take care of its future community building so any country problem including Muslim insurgencies has to be properly addressed. At the moment, this kind of conflict is widely discussed at different levels; government, academia, and also the civil society. Solutions to the problem are long term and it needs participation from all interested parties. ASEAN members, individually and collectively, have definitely a long way to go to build a proper platform to address this conflict.
Yong: Asean member states are committed to peaceful means to resolve conflicts. The political will to do so should help to ease tension and contribute to a conducive environment for reconciliation and progress.
Raslan: Given the depth of animosity and distrust that has built over the decades in these conflict areas, a simple solution would be impossible. Nonetheless, some degree of autonomy is an essential prerequisite to achieving a peaceful conclusion. Indonesia’s success with resolving the troubles in Aceh are instructive.
Muhiz: One should be careful in bandying about the term “Muslim insurgencies”, as often there are very important local historical and political factors at play.
In general, if countries experiencing insurgencies within their borders request advice and assistance from Asean, then perhaps there should be a more organised mechanism to provide such advice and assistance. Military intervention or the deployment of peacekeeping forces
Chirathivat: Evidently, these border disputes have to be solved at its best by both countries and it might take some time before they can reach an amicable conclusion. Otherwise, this kind of conflict could overspill beyond the two countries. And this is not only specific to the case of dispute between Cambodia and Thailand. A permanent Asean mechanism could be foreseen to establish in due time and that could involve the improvement of Asean in flexibility to the principle of non-intervention in its member states.
Yong: While the rotating chairmanship presently used by Asean is not perfect, all the Asean member states seem prepared to work with that system and to try to improve it by trial and error.
Raslan: Indonesia has taken the Chairmanship of Asean very seriously. Nonetheless, the grouping needs a more permanent way of resolving disputes.
Muhiz: If countries are willing to work within Asean to resolve border disputes, a permanent mechanism would be a good idea....................
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