One morning in Bangkok, I was queueing outside the Myanmar embassy and couldn’t help but overhear the conversation between two migrant workers. Crouching closely and holding on to their Myanmar passports, they struggled to understand each other – until they started speaking in Thai.
In moments like this, I marvel at the diversity and complexity of South-east Asia, and am reminded of the frequent misconception people have about Asean, the political face of this region.
Recent events have threatened to reduce the 10-nation bloc into a caricature of a tangled handshake, defined by disagreements over critical issues in its backyard.
Before the current Rohingya refugee crisis, the territorial disputes over the South China Sea hogged attention at Asean summits. At each year’s Asean foreign ministers’ meeting, journalists craned their necks and quizzed their sources late into the night to figure out whether disagreement over this issue would, yet again, delay the release of a joint communique – as had happened in 2012.
Now, with over 600,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar crammed into the south-eastern corner of Bangladesh, and Naypyitaw refusing to acknowledge the word “Rohingya” nor the atrocities committed against this group, Asean is, once again, being scorned for being soft on its member state.
But you cannot call something “toothless” if it was not born to bite. Asean is not a supranational authority, but an association of nations that moves by consensus, because any other way would have been unpalatable for a bloc where the per capita gross domestic product of the richest country is over 40 times that of the poorest. Within this region of over 600 million people, monarchies and dictatorships brush up against communist and democratic governments. Asean, therefore, is designed only to act what 10 capitals bid.
While Asean was created to contain the embers of the Cold War, many sources of intra-regional tension remain. Dwindling stocks of fish have driven regional fishermen beyond their country’s waters, for example, sometimes triggering brief confrontations. Land border disputes persist.
Asean remains a dialogue space that promotes stability.
It is in this space now that China is asserting its influence, triggering concerns that Asean states will, by default, disperse as individual satellites are pulled into this giant’s orbit. Yet, this narrative glosses over the historical ties that Asean states had with China, long before China started claiming most of the regional sea as its own.
Asean will not – as some fear – lose its relevance in a Chinese-dominated geopolitical order, as long as it continues making a difference to the lives of its people.
Since the Asean institution is designed to be weak, it can only be as dynamic as its leaders are. That reality was brought into sharp relief by the sudden death of its former secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan last month. He was one of the bloc’s most fervent ambassadors, and saved thousands of lives in 2008 by creating an Asean mechanism to coordinate international aid in cyclone-ravaged Myanmar to assuage the ruling junta’s fears of foreign intervention.
But Dr Surin was also an anomaly – a former academic, politician and foreign minister who was nominated by Thailand to take up a post usually filled by bureaucrats. Within Asean’s consensus system, he found ways to push the envelope.
Asean, at 50 years, needs to find more ways to push the envelope, and craft a compelling vision for its future generations in a connected age that is constantly throwing up new and competing loyalties.
To the casual observer, Asean’s progress is slow. Asean leaders last month signed the Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, 10 years after the adoption of a declaration of the same name. Yet, it is not legally binding.
“The Consensus affords wide latitude to states to limit protections in accordance with domestic laws and policies, essentially allowing them to selectively opt out of adherence to critical provisions,” said Philippines lawmaker Teddy Baguilat, in a statement issued by the pressure group Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights last month. “We have seen this sort of qualifying language in Asean documents before, and those have been implemented in ways that have allowed for the continued violation of the rights of millions of Asean citizens.”
Another example is the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), created in 2009 to much derision because Asean’s principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states leaves the commission with no room to probe abuses.
Mr Rafendi Djamin, a veteran civil society activist who was chosen by Indonesia to be its country representative to AICHR from 2009 to 2015, offers a different perspective.
“The discourse of human rights is now not a taboo anymore in Asean,” he tells The Straits Times. “You can talk about the death penalty, enforced disappearance, sexual orientation… that is something that everybody should be proud of.”
Being able to talk about these matters is very different from agreeing on them, and disagreement is natural in such a diverse region, he says. “If you fail to understand the dynamics inside, you will fail to understand the progress.”
Some say Asean’s woes stem more from its weak communication, that its small victories are lost amid the diplomatese. Even if true, Asean needs to go further to create the community it hopes to build.
Over past decades, many region-wide groups and movements have emerged. One of them is the Asean People’s Forum, also called the Asean Civil Society Conference, an annual gathering of regional non-governmental organisations in the same country holding the bloc’s rotating chairmanship.
Since 2005, disparate groups across the region have come together to craft recommendations to be presented to Asean leaders convening for the annual summit.
The difficult discussions that take place behind closed doors within the Asean institution are mirrored here. Regular participants at this civil society conference admit that they, too, struggle to find a common position among representatives who may have very different understandings of civil society itself.
But they convene, year after year, even though the response they get from Asean governments is sometimes less than enthusiastic.
Asean as an institution can grow only by creating more spaces to engage groups it cannot control, even if these conversations take place only behind closed doors.
If it is mostly a talk shop, Asean must be an inclusive talk shop. Only then, can its diversity become strength.