Southeast Asia

ASEAN: Trouble in the family
By Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia - The disquiet brewing in both Jakarta and Manila over the repatriation of illegal immigrants from Malaysia suggests that relations with Kuala Lumpur have been strained - though top officials are at pains to suggest that ties remain good.

But the larger question that should be asked is: What has happened to the much-touted solidarity within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)?

When Indonesian protesters burned the Malaysian flag and broke down the gate of the Malaysian Embassy in Jakarta last Sunday to protest the caning sentences meted out on Indonesian illegal immigrants in Malaysia, more than a few eyebrows were raised here. Though Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri sought to defuse the row, the continuing uneasiness and the flag-burning incident brought back memories of the "confrontation" between the two nations after the formation of Malaysia in 1963.

The Jakarta Post reported that Indonesia's high-ranking officials remain divided in trying to mend fences with Kuala Lumpur. While government officials were trying to tone down the issue, Indonesian legislators continued to issue controversial statements, urging Jakarta to adopt a harsher stance against Malaysia, the daily reported.

The issue comes on the back of a disagreement over the site of the ASEAN+3 secretariat, which Malaysia wants sited in Kuala Lumpur. ASEAN+3 is seen as a refined version of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's dream of an East Asian Economic Caucus - hence the desire to house the secretariat here in Malaysia. ASEAN, in particular Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand, rejected Malaysia's proposal, arguing that a separate secretariat for ASEAN+3 would erode the strength of the ASEAN secretariat located in Jakarta.

Over in Manila, the Philippine government has filed a diplomatic protest over the allegedly heavy-handed treatment of the deportees from Malaysia, said Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople. He also said he will leave it to the Legislative and Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) to decide whether the Philippine government should revive the issue of its historical claim over the Malaysian state of Sabah in North Borneo. If the Sabah issue crops up yet again, it will add another stumbling block to improved ties between the two nations.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was reported to be concerned at the suffering of Filipino illegals held at detention centers while awaiting deportation from Malaysia after television footage showed at least one woman weeping over her dead child.

How times have changed. It was not long ago that Arroyo was in Kuala Lumpur, soon after assuming the presidency, paying tribute to Mahathir for his leadership.

The lack of a regional agreement on migrant labor underlines ASEAN's impotence in handling the issues affecting regional stability that matter. Another example can be seen in the grouping's continued helplessness in tackling the smog that has once again blanketed the region (see ASEAN haze pact nothing but smoke , August 28).

While relations with Indonesia and the Philippines appear to have hit some turbulence, the same cannot be said with Malaysia's ties with Vietnam. On a day when the media were filled with reports about the concern expressed in Manila and Jakarta over the repatriation of illegal immigrants from Malaysia, a beaming Vietnamese labor minister told Malaysia's human resources minister on Wednesday that her country was willing to send up to 200,000 of its nationals to work in Malaysia.

It was a stunning about-turn from the situation in the 1970s when fleeing Vietnamese boat people heading for Malaysia were forced to turn back or housed on a crowded island off the Malaysian coast pending resettlement to third countries. In the 1980s, however, the authorities turned a blind eye to the influx of illegal Indonesian workers who came in droves to work in the countries plantations and construction sites. Again, how times have changed.

It is not just segments in Manila and Jakarta who are unhappy. The democratic opposition in Myanmar is upset with Mahathir's remarks during a two-day visit to Yangon that ended on August 19. During his visit, Mahathir advised the country's military government not to rush the country's pending democratic reforms. "While we uphold democracy and would like to see democracy practiced in a country, we are also aware the process of change must be gradual. We know from experience it is not easy to handle democracy. If we do not know how to handle it we will end up with anarchy," said Mahathir.

In remarks quoted by Irrawaddy magazine, prominent Shan intellect and academic Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe said Mahathir's road to reform does not strike a chord with Myanmar's opposition movement. "I think Mahathir is pushing for change or dialogue in Burma [the country's name before the junta changed it to Myanmar] in his way," said Chao-Tzang. "But his definition for democracy is not ours."

Certainly that's part of the problem for ASEAN. The varying pace of democratic reforms within ASEAN has meant that the understanding of what a real democracy is all about varies from the post-reform and people-power nations to those still under military or authoritarian rule. And such varying world views contribute toward differences in views among member nations.

On the southern front, Malaysia has a host of issues unresolved with its neighbor, Singapore, which was ejected from the Malaysian federation in 1965: from the pricing of water that Malaysia supplies to the republic (see Bridge over troubled waters , August 22) to the location of customs, immigration and quarantine facilities, officials have struggled to come up with a viable agreement. Officials are also involved in protracted negotiations over the redevelopment of Malaysian railway land, the use of Malaysian airspace and the release of pension fund money belonging to Malaysians who worked in Singapore.

A more recent spat involves land reclamation around Singapore's eastern island of Pulau Tekong, which Malaysia says could disrupt shipping and water flows in the narrow strait between them.

Increasingly economic factors are a major factor that could influence regional ties. Malaysia, though still less developed than Singapore, has emerged as a credible challenger to Singapore's regional dominance in transportation and manufacturing, wooing big-name firms to set up their regional centers and hubs on the peninsula.

Such economic competition has meant that Southeast Asian nations are increasingly going it alone, entering into bilateral trade relations with other trade groupings while ASEAN plays a less significant role. Trade issues are also a factor in relations, as can be seen in Malaysia's delay in removing protective tariffs for locally built cars - something that has affected behind-the-scenes relations with Thailand, a regional hub for car assembly.

In military matters, the ASEAN nations have been entering into bilateral arrangements with the United States on their own in the so-called war against terrorism. Analysts, who were once taken up with ASEAN's aim of setting up a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), have been left shaking their heads in despair as the sole superpower engages in military exercises and bilateral military cooperation in the region.

Such ASEAN disunity - or rather abdication of its role - has undermined the grouping's original ideal of securing a region free of superpower interference. Worryingly, it has also allowed the United States to re-establish a significant foothold in the region.

ASEAN must re-examine its relevance if it is not to become a peripheral grouping only useful for ceremonial purposes and diplomatic small talk. For an organization that once promised so much, it has to buck up if it is not to become a casualty when confronted with the formidable challenges posed by neoliberal economic globalization and superpower interference.

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Aug 31, 2002

ASEAN seminars launched

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Malaysia boots out illegal workers   (Aug 1, '02)


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