Editorial: Beggar thy ASEAN
The Jakarta Post | Fri, 02/27/2009 1:30 PM | Opinion
Another year, another summit. By this time next week it is debatable whether
anyone will have noticed that Southeast Asia's most powerful leaders had
gathered for a round of meetings that were likely predictable and formulaic.
In an era of change, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a
dawdling monolith weighed down by expectations and its own ineffectiveness.
For three decades, ASEAN was a nationally important pillar because the status
quo made it so. In other words, it was important not because of its natural
significance but because it was positioned as part of the national narrative as
defined by the state.
Now with the state unable to define a dogma, the true value of ASEAN is coming
And well it should.
The 14th ASEAN Summit in Hua Hin, Thailand, this coming weekend seems to be
more of a showcase for the government of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva
to have an international stage to legitimize his relatively young
administration. After several cancellations due to the political upheaval in
Thailand, it is important for the prime minister to restore some regional pride
and reclaim Thailand's role as a regional player and one of the original
founders of ASEAN.
Other than that, there is little expectation that the summit can produce
Routinity is a dangerous habit. Stuck in a cycle of meetings with a dependence
on bureaucratic legalese, ASEAN is entrenched in the habit of habits: meetings,
summits, declarations and statements.
All are important, but in times of crisis and change, conformity is the foe in
the needed creativity.
Southeast Asia is in an era of crisis and change. ASEAN is reflecting neither.
There is a sense of déjà vu as ASEAN, as it did in 1997-1998, remains hapless
as the gloomy economic clouds gathers and the economic storm now hits regional
The response of ASEAN member states to each other during this economic downturn
has not been one of better thy neighbor, but beggar thy neighbor.
Despite all its grand claims and structural achievements, ASEAN remains stuck
in an old-world style of behavior irrelevant to the new generation of ASEAN
citizens or the challenges they need to face.
Wedged in protocol, there was no solid action from ASEAN over the plight of the
Rohingya refugees. Silence is golden when political sensitivities are beholden.
The glimmer of hope that remains is that flesh can placed on the imperfect
skeletons of the ASEAN Charter.
We believe the charter must be charged to become a living document that is
amended and improved to eventually embody the values of its peoples.
Noting the theme of this year's summit, "Charter for ASEAN Peoples", the Thai
prime minister during a visit to Jakarta recently said, "The new ASEAN will
work more closely with regional nonstate actors, be they parliamen-tarians, the
private sector and civil society groups".
To further enhance and promote people's participation in the ASEAN
community-building process, ASEAN leaders, he said, would meet with
representatives from these groups, including members of parliament, youth
leaders and civil society organizations during the summit.
All in the name of forging "an ASEAN citizenship among our people".
We believe such courtesies are superficial and passé.
The fact of the matter is in the last two decades - despite the grand speeches
and cultural exchanges - ASEAN simply has not invested or even allowed a
greater voice for the participation of nonstate and civil society actors.
It may be time for ASEAN to fess up and concede that it is no more than a
bureaucratic superstructure designed to facilitate relations between state
Let go of the slogans and empty promises that lead its citizens to believe that
this grouping is nothing more than a powwow to facilitate trade liberalization
and sustain a peaceful hegemony in Southeast Asia.
Sadly, Indonesia, which has invested so much in this grouping, will have the
most to lose. Once a cornerstone of foreign policy, this wonderful assemblage
is deteriorating into a liability for a values-based Indonesian foreign policy.