ASEAN at 50: Golden year or mid-life crisis?

BANGKOK, Thailand – The road is long and tough for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2017 and embarks on a journey ahead. But 5 decades after, has ASEAN achieved what it was meant to?

ASEAN was established on August 8, 1967 to “accelerate economic growth” and “promote regional peace and stability” in the region, among others.

What started as a 5-member organization has grown to a 10-member regional group that has been recently sought by other countries. In its core are the principles of consensus and non-interference among ASEAN countries.

But 50 years since, there are far more complex issues facing the region and the world. Critics have argued that these principles are no longer applicable and healthy for the region.

While critics claim these are obstacles to ASEAN acting as one, Jakkrit Srivali, outgoing Thai ASEAN Director General, said these are the very things that made ASEAN who it is.

Photo by Camille Elemia/Rappler

Clearly, consensus-building has worked for ASEAN in terms of creating a venue for discussion. If one nation would just impose his or her rules and ideals, other countries would lose interest in talks in the first place, leading to instability.

“Yes, skeptics say ASEAN remains process-heavy but this go-slow, incremental approach has worked quite well. It has bestowed ASEAN considerable convening power, which is a crucial ingredient to centrality,” Srivali said during the 2017 Reporting ASEAN media forum on Friday, February 17.

ASEAN has even extended this power to its dialogue partners such as China, the United States, Japan, and South Korea, among others.

Tang Siew Mun, head of the ASEAN Studies Center and senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said ASEAN has been the only regional group that brought all these countries together.

“ASEAN is the only actor in the whole world that can bring China, Korea, Japan, United States, India in the same room to talk. That’s the unique role that ASEAN can play. This can only be done by being inclusive and non-threatening,” Tang said.

Down side of consensus, myth of non-interference

But to some extent, this also hampers the impact and actual outputs of the organization. Take for instance the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea and the instrument on the ASEAN protection of migrant workers’ rights, which have dragged on for years. (READ: ASEAN treaty on migrant workers: Can PH make it happen in 2017?)

Just like aging humans, Tang said ASEAN should conduct regular “check-ups” and “soul-searching” to determine its strengths, weaknesses, and what it ought to do next.

“ASEAN, after 50 years, should do soul-searching – where we have been, achievements, where we will go. One of its challenges is centrality,” Tang said in the forum.

Centrality has been one of ASEAN’s goals. But even that word, he said, has no clear, definite meaning.

Photo by Camille Elemia/Rappler

“Centrality, there is no specific definition until now, how it is operationalized. Some see ASEAN as facilitator, ASEAN as convenor of meetings. I’d say all of the above,” he added.

Another issue raised is the “double standard” on non-interference of ASEAN member-states. It is like a double-edged sword, in the sense that it could open discussions and at the same time block them.

“Example, for country A, non-interference is not relevant. But if [an issue] involves countries A and B, country A would invoke non-interference. There is double standard. But this is real life politics, this is what real life is,” he said.

“Non-interference in domestic policy is borderline but non-interference when it involves common good in the region, there should be a leeway to reach out and to be supportive in a constructive way,” Tang added.

But Seree Nonthasoot, Thai Representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, said non-interference is a "myth of convenience."

Photo by Camille Elemia/Rappler

Contrary to popular belief, Nonthasoot claimed ASEAN representatives and diplomats interfere with each another "all the time, knowingly, unknowingly, reported or otherwise."

"Despite that façade of doing nothing, diplomatically they are doing something...There's a thin line beneath that," Nonthasoot said, citing the issues of the Rohingyas and the Indonesian haze.

Philippine ambassador to Thailand Mary Jo Bernardo-Aragon said ASEAN has matured  tremendously in the past 5 decades

“When does mid-life crisis begin? When does maturity begin? In the past 5 decades, ASEAN has reached a great deal of maturity. We started off with a meeting of minds. We wanted to be able to provide people in our region peace and harmony,” Aragon said.

Aragon shared Tang’s view that despite the growth attained by the organization, ASEAN has to “reflect.”

She pointed out the high-level task force ordered to review and strengthen the ASEAN secretariat.

“I don’t think it’s business as usual. In any grouping, there is time for reflection. Our strength is we try to move towards consensus. It’s unique to ASEAN. But it doesn’t mean to say we put issues in the backburner,” she added.

ASEAN community

In 2015, ASEAN established the Asean Economic Community (AEC), which aims to have a freer flow of goods, services, investment, capital, and skilled labor in the region.

The organization has focused  mainly on improving trade, business climate, and the economies. Other sectors, in the process, seemed to have suffered.

“In fact it is in economics that ASEAN has advanced a lot – to the chagrin of the political and socio- cultural sectors,” said Jenina Joy Chavez, coordinator for industrial policy team of the Action for Economic Reforms, a Manila-based organization.

In 1983, ASEAN first tried to introduce free trade agreements in the region but it took another 10 years before it succeeded.

The AEC only covers free trade of 8 professions in the region – engineers, architects, doctors, nurses, lawyers and accountants, among others. Migrant workers, more so undocumented ones, are excluded.

“That is why the instrument on the protection of migrant workers is something that’s really badly needed,” Chavez said, pointing out that 2 in 5 migrant workers in the region are intra-ASEAN labor migrants.

More than a year has passed since an ASEAN community was built, but Ambassador Aragon acknowledged that it takes “generations” to build a community.

Moving forward

ASEAN, despite criticisms, is not entirely a failure. It is not 100% success either.

PANELISTS. From L-R: Jenina Joy Chavez of Action for Economic Reforms Philippines, Philippine Ambassador to Thailand Mary Jo Bernardo-Aragon, Tang Siew Mun of ASEAN Studies Center in Singapore. Photo by Camille Elemia/Rappler

PANELISTS. From L-R: Jenina Joy Chavez of Action for Economic Reforms Philippines, Philippine Ambassador to Thailand Mary Jo Bernardo-Aragon, Tang Siew Mun of ASEAN Studies Center in Singapore.

Photo by Camille Elemia/Rappler

Chavez said a lot could be argued about ASEAN’s advantages and disadvantages to the region and to its people.

But one thing is undisputable for her – that ASEAN is necessary. After all, the issues the Southeast Asian region is facing are so huge that no single country could deal with them alone, she said.

“These are issues that require regional cooperation that need regional responses, which regional action is imperative. If it’s not ASEAN, it will definitely be something else that is similar,” Chavez said.

“Starting something right now because of what we have at the moment? We can do that but it will be no less than a challenge, than another 50 years and dealing with what we have now,” she said.

ASEAN has reached a milestone but more has to be done.

Saman Zia-Zafiri, regional director of the International Commission on Jurists, said ASEAN has been "disappointing" on the issue of human rights.

"If you compare it 30 years ago, when there was the Khmer Rouge, we're better than 30 years ago but it is not enough. If you look back at the last 10 years, then it’s not so clear that Southeast Asia is a better place," Zafiri said.

Aside from the issues of migrant workers, ASEAN has to address stability in the region’s waters, the issue of refugees, and the Rohingya crisis. Political will, indeed. (READ: Rohingya crisis pushes ASEAN into unfamiliar waters)

“There's [the] poverty problem. How is ASEAN benefitting its members? Some members like Laos, Myanmar see growth in their economy but mostly because of their government – what’s ASEAN's role in this? Not much,” said Tang.

On top of regional matters, ASEAN also has to decide on how to deal with the changing global landscape, including the administration of US President Donald Trump. The US, after all, is one of the major dialogue partners of ASEAN. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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