Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Asean still has to prove that it is really unified


via CAAI

Despite the sterling efforts of Indonesia as the current chair, the regional grouping must show the world it can act in true solidarity

Thanks to the effectiveness and non-partisan outlook of the current chair, Indonesia, the 18th Asean Summit last weekend concluded on a high note. With the Thai-Cambodian conflict still simmering and overshadowing the summit, it took the calmness of the chair to steer the summit toward a successful conclusion.

If it hadn't been for Indonesia's cool-headed approach, the summit could have turned out differently. For the first time in the history of the regional grouping, an intra-Asean conflict featured prominently during the plenary sessions at the ministerial and summit levels, much to the chagrin of the more conservative members and delegates.

Cambodia's unilateral decision to seek international assistance has pushed the other Asean members to support the ongoing efforts of Thailand to settle the border dispute through a bilateral mechanism, as reflected in the chairman's statement.

The aggressive approach and the lack of consistency by the Cambodian side also helped to strengthen Indonesia's facilitating role and the "fullest utilisation" of the bilateral efforts. It remains to be seen how Indonesia will further engage both sides as the Asean leaders sent a clear signal to the two protagonists not to split Asean with this conflict and thus delay the realisation of an integrated Asean Community by 2015.

Apart from the hullabaloo surrounding the Hun Sen-Hor Nam Hong dramatics, Indonesia managed to push forward processes within the grouping to ensure that the prospect of achieving the Asean Community for 2015 and beyond will be a strong one.

The statement on "the Asean Community in a Global Community of Nations" is a good testimony to Indonesia's current leadership. The Asean leaders agreed that the regional grouping needs to move forward with a shared vision and coordinated action on global issues of common interest. Without these commonalities, Asean will remain weak and lack bargaining power in the globalised world. Toward these objectives, Asean has to do a lot more, as its members are still basically unwilling to think "collectively" for the good of the whole organisation and its 600 million people.

Indonesia has done an excellent job in encouraging the dialogue between the Asean leaders and the civil society organisations. However, Burma has not taken part in the interface. The chair has shown initiative and demonstrated that such dialogues are useful and can be carried out without any politicisation. Vietnam chose not to do so last year.

Somehow, this dialogue process must be institutionalised further. Otherwise there is no guarantee that there will be this type of positive gathering when Cambodia is chair, given past negative responses from Phnom Penh. Without the dialogue process, it is hard to convince the world that Asean is moving toward a people-oriented economic community.

As expected, the controversial issues relating to Burma's request to chair Asean in 2014, as well as the proposed membership of East Timor [Timor Leste], were further deferred. Asean will dispatch fact-finding teams to both countries to assess the situation on the ground and come back with a set of recommendations for the next summit. However, there is nothing given on both cases.

Several Asean members have strong views on the 2014 Asean chairmanship for Burma, as well as the grouping's enlargement. As a rules-based organisation, Asean is getting tough on its members about strictly adhering to rules and regulations.

Indonesia's chairmanship will remain pivotal for the reduction of Thai-Cambodian border tensions in the months to come. Further progress is crucial if so-called Asean solidarity is to become a reality. The whole world is watching.

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