While the main goals of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)– Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam–are described in trade terms (single market and production base, highly competitive economic region, equitable economic development, further integration into the global economy), the documents that have come out of various Asean meetings talk about many other things.
On the matter of an Asean identity, the Asean Charter (2007), the Asean Declaration on Cultural Heritage (2000) and of late, the Asean Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint (2009-20015), specify “The Asean Identity is the basis of Southeast Asia’s regional interests. It is our collective personality, norms, values and beliefs as well as aspirations as one Asean Community…..The strategic objective is …to create a sense of belonging, consolidate unity in diversity and enhance deeper mutual understanding among Asean member countries about their culture, history, religion and civilization……”
There are, however, sorts of “cultural war” among some Asean countries related to cultural heritage. In 2012, it was reported that riots erupted in Jakarta when Indonesian protesters targeted the Malaysian Embassy over dance heritage, in particular, the Tor-tor dance. Likewise, some quarters claim Malaysia’s national anthem Negaraku is based on Indonesia’s Terang Bulan (Bright Moon). In the area of cuisine, the Yu Sheng/Lo Hei, a dish served during Chinese Lunar Festival and traditionally thought to bring prosperity is separately claimed by the Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia as theirs.
Even the Peranakan (Nonya) dishes, a fusion of Malay and Chinese recipes, did not escape similar claims. (Ethnic tension within Malaysia between Chinese Malaysians and ethnic Malays is still on because of the country’s economic policy of Bumiputra which gives preferential treatment to the ethnic Malay majority.) Another example is the Preah Vihar temple issue between Cambodia and Thailand which had to be settled by the International Court of Justice. In April 2013, about 500 nationalists of the Patriot Thai Group raised the flag of Thailand to assert Thai sovereignty over Preah Vihar.
The examples cited demonstrate that cultures should not be thought to have fixed borders. Many of these cultures evolved in the course of time during Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian periods. Meaning, practices in countries within the Asean region continued to be shaped by various peoples and events.
Even the legal culture is not an exception. Asean countries have a mosaic of legislations with traces of foreign influence brought about by periods of Spanish (Philippines),
French (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam), British (Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore) AND Dutch (Indonesia) occupation.
The lack of knowledge of historical roots and evolution of particular ways of life and practices can result in too nationalistic and divisive views. There should be space for two or more forms of heritages, complementary but not in conflict.
In short, they should be considered shared cultures that transcend political boundaries. In this rubric are the angklung (bamboo) orchestra as well as the gamelan (gongs) ensemble of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines which are like one. Also batiks which are either Indonesian, Malaysian or Thai like the wayang kulit (shadow play).
The Philippine Bayanihan Dance Co. researched Singkil and found that it has its equivalent in Indonesia and Malaysia, which should not be a surprise considering the geographic proximity of the three countries collectively called “Maphilindo” before the birth of Asean. In the same way, the popular Philippine folk dance Tinikling has a slow movement version in Thailand. Truly Asean, on the other hand, is kite flying as a pastime as well as the tube-like-wrap-around malong, a real-life practical garment for men still evident all over Southeast Asia from Brunei Darussalam to Myanmar to Vietnam.
The case of the Preah Vihar temple between Cambodia and Thailand, however, should be viewed in another light. Involved is sovereignty but a way out is recognition of functional sovereignty as distinguished from territorial sovereignty. Functional sovereignty refers to specific uses of a resource rather than absolute and unlimited jurisdiction within a geographic space. It means interdependence in the sustainable use of a resource emphasizing that states are dutybound to cooperate with each other to promote development sustainability of the common environment.
Preah Vihar ought to be enjoyed as an Asean tourism resource, a cultural heritage of both Cambodia and Thailand aside from a religious destination in the Asean jurisdiction. Or, in different words, the change of perception of the role of sovereignty in relations between states regarding their environment should be characterized by equitable utilization ultimately redounding to the benefit of the Asean region.
A good model for an Asean identity is the Asean Heritage Parks system which continues to focus on cooperation among member countries to develop a regional conservation and management plan for the current string of over 40 heritage parks in the region. The criteria to determine if the region qualifies as an Asean heritage park include high ethno-biological significance, uniqueness and respresentativeness. Designation as a heritage park strengthens cooperation, awareness and appreciation among Asean countries.
Together with the other aspects of the Asean cultural heritage, the designation promotes the twin objectives of community building and identity. Best of all, the concept of an Asean heritage parks system advances protected area goals expressed in the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands Conservation as well as the World Heritage Convention.
All this will help forge an Asean identity which is important for the future implementation of Asean policies. It is a complementary to the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention (Asean Way) which can, without the recognition of a cultural bridge, hinder the implementation of Asean legal instruments and tools including environmental laws. After all, what society chooses to preserve of the past defines who we are today, creates our collective memory and hastens our new development as Asean Community bound by a common regional identity. In the words of Asean law expert Koh Kheng Lian, “an Asean identity is crucial to bringing about enhanced cooperation to supplement the Asean Way and make it more meaningful, to encourage all to “THINK Asean” instead of only “Think National.”
Before joining the Philippine Foreign Service, the author was the first Director of the Environmental Management Bureau (DENR) and served as Coordinator, Asean Experts Group on the Environment.