Saturday, October 24, 2009

Asean appears set on a slide to irrelevance

By any standards, it is a pretty bad look - the opening of the annual Asean summit with just half of the leaders able to show up. As we report today, a combination of domestic politics, diplomatic duties and a tropical storm has conspired to keep five of the Association of South East Asian Nation leaders from reaching the summit venue in the Thai coastal resort of Hua Hin in time. It is not as if the Asean grouping was in the best of health to start with. For several years now, the organisation has been struggling for relevance - a fact noted by its own veteran advisers. That struggle now looks more like a fight to the death.

Asean, of course, has always been about pageantry and bloated shows of unity over substance. While its specific achievements since its inception in 1967 have always been difficult to list, insiders have long stressed that just getting the region's disparate leaders together regularly in the same room is achievement enough.

There is no need to be too hasty, the thinking goes. Just consider how diverse the grouping is and you will understand why regular talk, if not hard action, is valuable. It should never be forgotten that there has never been a war between two Asean members, its proponents like to insist (a fiercely anti-communist bloc formed in 1967, it has expanded to encompass modern South East Asia through the 1990s). As such, softly-softly consensus and non-interference in each other's affairs have always been favoured over swift decisions, accountability and bold action.

Certainly there are few organisations that easily unite such a diversity of cultures and political systems. Asean includes large Muslim-majority states - Indonesia and Malaysia - with evolving communist party-ruled states - Vietnam and Laos - as well as democracies - Thailand and the Philippines. Then there are the oddities - a throwback military junta in Myanmar, and Cambodia, a former communist nominal democracy largely under the control of a single leader, Hun Sen.

But if even the most basic shows of unity cannot be staged, one has to wonder about the future. Discussions in the broader region about a new East Asian community, particularly on the security side, threaten to further challenge Asean's role. Asean has made progress on free trade and freeing up the movement of capital and people in recent years, yet it has always seemed to be reactive rather than driving change and improvements. And when trouble breaks out - such as the recalcitrance of Myanmar's generals in the face of humanitarian disaster, or environmental challenges - the response is inevitably highly questionable.

In 2007, a body of retired Asean senior diplomats urged the grouping to get bolder, find a way to make proper, accountable decisions and draw in greater involvement from wider society, including the private sector and human rights groups and other non-government organisations, reflecting increasingly open, wealthy societies across much of South East Asia. The grouping, the Eminent Persons Group noted, was "at a critical turning point". Three years on, and the human rights commission has just been inaugurated with little fanfare and fewer expectations. It will have no teeth and will seek to promote rather than protect basic rights.

It is a useful metaphor for the group's wider failings - weaknesses that even its own leaders are acknowledging by their absence. By Greg Torode South China Morning Post

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