“This is the sad reality as it stands today.”
When they signed the Agreement establishing ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the six founding members – the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei – did so on the basis of two assumptions. One of the assumptions was that they were joining an association, not a union. The other assumption was that ideological acceptability was not a requirement for membership.
The first assumption was perfectly understandable. An association is far looser and much less complicated, legally and administratively, than a union. Given their diverse historical and cultural backgrounds, the Founding Six could not be expected to want to join a union of countries.
The second assumption was no less perfectly understandable. Of the six founding members, only three – the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia – were functioning democracies. The government of Indonesia, the largest of the Six, was a dictatorship headed by President Suarto. Brunei was a fiefdom of the family of the reigning Sultan. The smallest of the six, Singapore, while theoretically a democracy, was in practice a one-party state headed by a man with great charisma. Truly an ideological hodge-podge was ASEAN at the start of its life.
This ideological diversity has been magnified and deepened over the years, as ASEAN has altered its membership out of a desire to bring as many Southeast Asian nations as possible within the ASEAN fold. To the Founding Six were added a country run since the early 1960s by a military junta (Myanmar) and three communist countries that once composed French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). Awaiting approval of its long-outstanding application for membership is Timor Leste, a democratic state that was once a part of Indonesia. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – particularly Vietnam – have moved away from rigid communist dogma and have to a large extent adopted the capitalist model of economic development. Myanmar under the rule of the generals has remained a country with bad economic management and regressive politics.
Gien this mix of individual histories, ideologies and experiences, ASEAN may effectively be said to be made up of four parts, viz., five democracies (the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore), three communist countries (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), an autocracy (Brunei) and a non-democratic, non-communist state (Myanmar).
China exercises strong influence over the four latest additions to ASEAN (Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) for reasons of geographical propinquity and ideological commonality. Although historically Vietnam has always striven to maintain distance between itself and China – even occasionally engaging in skirmishes – Cambodia and Laos remain very much under Beijing’s influence. Economically, Myanmar has always been dependent on China to a great extent, and most of Myanmar’s export trade is accounted for by China.
In truth, ASEAN may in geopolitical matters be said to be divided into two groups of members – those that are inclined to be supportive of China (Mymar and the communist countries except Vietnam) and those members that are not included to be supportive of China (the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Vietnam). This diversion has been clearly displayed in China’s ability to delay action on the conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. China’s friends in ASEAN, almost certainly taking their cue from Beijing, have shown no great interest in the proposed Code’s speedy establishment and enforcement.
By their latest actions Myanmar’s generals have shown that today’s Myanmar does not belong in ASEAN – or in any respectable non-communist international group, for that matter. In another example of the gradual discarding of the concept of non-interference in other members’ domestic affairs, this country’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs has asked the generals to set aside the recent conviction and sentencing of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar is giving ASEAN a very bad reputation internationally. It should be expelled from the Association. But for as long as ASEAN is composed the way it is – with many members caring little for democracy – that is not going to happen.
That is the sad reality of ASEAN as it stands today.