The patient is ill but he’s not in ICU, not in coma

ASEAN SUMMIT

Calling for fresh initiatives, Asean grouping underscores the need to drop non-intervention principle to cope collectively with emerging challenges.

ASEAN IS not too well these days.

Compared to the heydays of the 1970s and 1980s when it used to be able to flex its muscles against the creeping threat of communism, the body politic is now a pale shadow of itself.

This was the general consensus of participants at a seminar yesterday to discuss Asean’s role in the new millennium.The broad consensus was that the 10-member organisation was suffering from “institutional lethargy and in need of fresh initiatives to resuscitate it”.

It had yet to adapt to changes to cope with the sweeping forces of globalisation, economic competition from East Asia, andthe challenges of emerging political and security problems.

Key participant Jusuf Wanandi, a member of the board of directors for the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), noted: “Asean is not down and out yet.

“It is certainly not bed-ridden. But it is heading that way if it does not come up with new mechanisms to handle pressing issues in the region.”

In particular, some participants noted that Asean had to rid itself of the non-intervention principle to cope with thorny issues such as Myanmar’s poor human-rights record.

Said Dr Suchit Bunbongkarn from the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok: “Myanmar’s track record has put Asean in a spot several times. So has its involvement in the drug trade. Asean has to take a strong stand to put things right.”Mr Jusuf said that failure to act collectively was also seen in how it dealt with politico-security issues in the region, in particular the Spratlys issue.

“We have yet to come up with an acceptable code of conduct or mechanism to prevent confrontation in the South China Seas,” he maintained.

Why was Asean weak in dealing with such problems?

Dr Jusuf said that it boiled down to weak leadership in the organisation. The decline of Indonesia, which provided much of Asean’s direction in its earlier days, was a critical factor.

But so was the domestic problems facing countries such as the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia.

“That means people cannot get the focus right. They are too preoccupied with internal problems to look outward and lead Asean.”

At the same time, he pointed to the inclusion of several new member-states in the organisation in the last two years. It would take time for the Indochina states to adjust.

Asean was not merely faltering in handling flashpoints. Dr Bunbongkarn said that there were also new security threats thatwere emerging with scant attention from the organisation.

This included a growing trend of mass migration, especially from Myanmar and the Indochinese states, into Thailand. Thousands of illegal immigrants from Indonesia had also smuggled into Malaysia to look for work.

Besides this, Asean was not prepared to deal with poverty in some countries, drug-trafficking and cyberwar, plus environmental matters.

The most instructive was its failure to handle forest fires in Indonesia which had led to serious haze and environmental pollution in the region in the past years.

“The conception of Asean security has for a long while been grounded on this need to confront a conventional enemy,” he said.

“But the whole definition has changed and Asean has to address this.”

Economists at the conference, organised by the Institute for South-east Asian Studies (Iseas), said that that Asean also needed to come up with new ideas to cope with globalisation.

Said Dr Mohamed Ariff, the executive director of the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research: “Asean’s present structure is too inadequate to deal with new issues.”

“Economics will dominate and drive Asean in the next two to three decades,” he commented. “It is time that Asean is steered by a Council of Economic Ministers.”

Dr Hadi Soesastro of the CSIS said that sticking close to past agreements was also important to bail the region out of its economic problems.

He cited the backsliding in the Afta timetable as an example.

THE ASEAN BODY POLITIC: THE DIAGNOSIS

POLITICS AND SECURITY
* Sticking rigidly to principle of non-intervention which was outmoded in an interedpent world.
* Failure to resolve threatening flashpoints in the region such as the Spratlys issue.
* Unable to identify and cope with new security threats such as the haze and environmental pollution, drug trafficking, cyberwar and mass migration.

ECONOMICS
* Too much focus on politics at the expense of economic issues which is expected to be more important for Asean in the next two to three decades.
* Backsliding on Afta because of protectionist pressures from certain countries. Need for a rule-based system rather than ad hoc initiatives.
* Private sector must play a more proactive role. It is being influenced by governments rather than the other way round.

SOCIAL
* Financial crisis has raised poverty levels in Indonesia, the Philippines, and several Indochina countries. Asean has yet to come out with concrete initiative to address this problem.
* Asean also slow in responding to the Aids scourge which threaten to kill millions if no initiative is taken soon.
* Several Asean states still have low literacy rates. Need for the organisation to come up with broad based policies in education and technology that could help less developed countries.

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