Mon, 16 Jun 2003

ASEAN should learn how to grow up

Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, Managing Editor, 'Van Zorge Report on Indonesia', Jakarta

"Ideologies separate us, dreams and anguish bring us together."

These profound words probably encapsulate the fundamental challenge faced by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): A deficiency of a clear sense of purpose, or vision, on where the grouping is heading in this age of U.S. hegemony.

Without the construction of a vivid road map -- a tangible, foreseeable dream -- ASEAN can only hope to teeter along to jeers of growing irreverence.

Every year in the run-up to major ASEAN meetings, various op- eds -- not unlike this one -- emerge, mocking the relevance of the regional grouping. As ministers of the 10 member states gather in Phnom Penh this week, once again the customary barrage of media sarcasm abounds. After 35 years, the naysayers seem to multiply faster than the converts.

The classic list of complaints have only extended as new regional challenges further expose the incapacity of ASEAN. Bold initiatives, particularly in the socio-political sphere, have only evolved into lethargic processes that have produced mounds of self-absorbed policy papers shelved in the four walls of the academia, or worst yet, the bottom drawer of a middle-aged foreign office bureaucrat.

In a nutshell, ASEAN has failed in three critical veins over the past decade, which has led to the almost unanimous, albeit sometimes harsh, perception of letdown. The first is the widely held view that ASEAN could do little when the region was hit with a crisis that directly impacted the peoples of the member states: the economic meltdown of 1997-1998. No perceptible prescription was forwarded through the ASEAN network during this crisis.

One can sympathize with the peoples of Southeast Asia who question the value of such a pronounced association, if it could not help itself when it most needed to. Economic initiatives like AFTA have certainly helped invigorate regional trade, but they have done little to directly touch the lives of the everyday layman.

The second is the failure of ASEAN to propagate and defend humanitarian and democratic values, which at the end of the 20th century had become the over-arching political paradigm. Instead of proliferating the democratic ideology, ASEAN became entrenched in its political straitjacket. As the organization celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1997, there were just as many authoritarian regimes within its ranks as there were in 1967. Because of the increasing international focus toward human rights issues, the inclusion of a country like Myanmar became a liability. Here, once again, ASEAN could not reflect the growing political aspirations permeating the region.

The third letdown is its inability to keep up with the changing paradigms of international relations. Regional security had initially been perceived in the context of an armed threat, but by the early 1990s, there were new, non-traditional forms of threats -- namely environmental degradation, migrant workers, maritime piracy and drug smuggling.

ASEAN's response to these new challenges was mostly reactionary. Not until the mid-1990s was there a serious move to treat them as real threats. Even then, the decisions taken were usually piecemeal without addressing longer-term solutions or even looking at the root cause of these problems. The low point probably came as forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan created one of the region's biggest environmental catastrophes. Haze blanketed most of Singapore, Malaysia and even parts of Thailand.

These three failures had a profound effect on how the citizens of ASEAN perceived their grouping. Little confidence was retained by an association which was seen as lacking in economic, political and social astuteness.

To be fair to ASEAN, people were probably expecting too much from an association which was, frankly speaking, formed to check expansionist tendencies, avert interstate conflict and check the spread of communism. If the assessment is limited to these goals alone, than ASEAN has certainly fulfilled its objectives. But a 30-year-old should not aspire to the goals and standards of a 15- year-old. Likewise, ASEAN should learn to grow up and expound higher objectives.

The key words for the future is to "reinvigorate" and provide a "sense of purpose" for ASEAN by quantifying a set of conceptual, yet tangible, goals that the organization must aspire to within the next two decades.

Qualified officials and academics are more equipped to detail the precepts needed in the blueprint to achieving these goals, but the most important which should be urged is for ASEAN to move away from its conservatism, without wholly discarding proven ways and means that have served it well in the past. That is to say that debates in the future should not be encumbered by rather "ideological" debates on issues such as non-intervention. This blueprint must provide the architectural style and floor plans for the edifice that needs to be constructed. The wallpaper motif can be debated upon later.

Already, plans are afoot on drafting a proposal which would help drive the ASEAN region to become some form of economic common market or community. Such a goal is highly conceivable given that under the umbrella of AFTA and APEC, much of the necessary policy-oriented commitments have already been made.

What has only been discussed in limited circles are suggestions that a political-security community, to complement the economic one, also be introduced. The political commitment for such an endeavor would thrust a greater purpose into the life of ASEAN, and allow the some 500 million people in the region to have a clear marker to judge the grouping's progress. The drafting of such a political community would also allow ASEAN to introspect its future paradigms amid a world that is rapidly changing.

Indonesia has a significant role to play, given its diplomatic tact, political clout and the fact that it will host the ASEAN Summit later in the year. For most of the past six years, Jakarta has remained aloof in playing a leadership role in the region.

With relative stability returning at home, it may be time for Indonesia to start showing the natural leadership qualities it has flaunted in the past. Indonesia would also be best placed and most acceptable in taking the first sensitive steps in recommending this proposal.