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Asean at 45: Without unity, risky times ahead

Publication Date : 08-08-2012

 

After 45 years of age, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is finding out that some of its members can be very unyielding on certain points. Current tensions could even lead to the destruction of the organisation.

Now a Pandora's box has been opened wide. Each Asean member has to learn anew how to align itself with the others - indeed, to learn how to form a consensus again - or else what happened in Phnom Penh last month could become a precedent unmatched in the history of the regional grouping.

The next two Asean chairs, Brunei and Myanmar, will be under a lot of pressure. Brunei is a small country. Since it joined Asean in 1986, right after gaining its independence, it has played a marginal role in the group. However, with the new political landscape and the divisions in Asean, Brunei has been awakened by the growing tensions. It will have to adopt a more proactive posture when it takes the chair.

So will Myanmar, which will chair Asean in 2014. As it takes up this appointment, Myanmar's views and actions will be closely scrutinised.

In addition, it will also serve as a coordinating country for Asean-US ties, which is one of the grouping's most important relationships. It is to be hoped that Brunei and Myanmar will learn from the experience of Cambodia's time as chair, so that the same pitfalls can be avoided.

All these transitions are taking place as the major powers try to solidify their influence in the region. In the past these countries were benign and passive. Now, with the rise of China, and the US repositioning itself vis-à-vis Asia, all eyes are on the region.

Asean is placed in a Catch-22 position. It has to respond to external pressures in ways that will not divide the grouping, since each member has its own preferences and special relationships with major dialogue partners.

Current Asean chair Cambodia is still groping to find ways to issue a joint communiqué from the last summit meeting, because in its absence many decisions were held up. The Asean leaders are discussing ways to ensure that any Asean chair will perform its role without bias or preference. There will be some guidelines to that effect.

Back in the 1960s Thailand played an important role in regional politics, not to mention its principal part in establishing Asean. For the past four decades, the country has maintained its active role in ensuring that the organisation is united and continues to serve the members' interests, notably during the Cambodian civil wars.

However, of late, Thailand's voice has been conspicuously absent in Asean. During the Abhisit government, despite the domestic political turmoil, Thailand's contribution was not diminished, and in fact it was quite successful in pushing for the adaptation of a roadmap for Asean connectivity. Fortunately, our leadership at that time was able to argue and speak on behalf of Thailand. Today's leadership is incapable of doing so.

Without a clearer direction, Thailand could become increasingly irrelevant within Asean. This could happen sooner than we think - especially at a time when the grouping is moving towards further integration. One can easily sense the fear among Thai decision-makers that our country could miss the train altogether.

 

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