THERE are those who bluntly question what is the point of having Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) at all if it were not to take a proactive role in regional matters, especially those of strategic importance? The answer to this question is, alas, perhaps an existentialist one.
For indeed what would Southeast Asia be if we do not at least have a regional organization in the form of Asean? Well, one possible outlook would be that we are Balkanized. And what does that mean? The Balkan Peninsula, which roughly comprises the former Yugoslavia and Albania, has been one of the world’s most ethnically and religiously diverse and thus tense regions. Within a small confine of rather rugged terrain, there live side by side Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats, to name but a few of the Balkan tribes. Their incessant bickering led to the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne and thus the onset of the First World War a century ago. Yugoslavians were ruled with an iron fist under the communist dictator Tito for nearly half a century after the Second World War and thus maintained a forced peace. But all hell broke loose in the 1990s, with the various former component republics of Yugoslavia at war with each other and often within themselves too, culminating in many different horrible tales of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The relative peace there now can at best be described as temporary.
And at least in theory we the various nations in Southeast Asia have the comparable “ingredients” that could have led to the same, if not higher degree of havoc, as the Balkans. There are Muslims, Christians and Buddhists (and even some Hindus) among us, and we are each fiercely proud of our respective ethnic backgrounds. So, we could have each staked our claim to our pride and “greatness” and assumed a rival posture to our neighbors, instigating war at the first hint of insult. Even just as an individual commentator on regional affairs, I myself have not immune to attack but subject to that sort of war cry from a neighboring country due only to a well-meaning media comment of mine, albeit at a civil-society level. So, things could have gone the Balkan way from way back during the early days of our independence from our respective colonial yokes.
And we were almost there. Right before and after Malaysia’s formation, for example, the so-called “Confrontation” was launched to oppose it, with skirmishes taking place for a few years. But wiser heads prevailed, and all our former leaders decided not to go down that mutually destructive path toward total annihilation. Instead, we decided to set aside or overlook our cultural and political differences, great that they may be, and form Asean to bring us closer together, but only to a degree of closeness that we are all comfortable with.
And that degree of comfort is essential for Asean’s long-term survival as a regional platform for peace and hopefully also security, but peace with each other first and foremost. In the early days of Asean, when the Vietnam War was raging, there was a perceived “common enemy” in the likelihood of communist insurgency flipping many Southeast Asian countries red in a domino effect, so the founding members of Asean understandably came very close together in security concerns, although even then there was not an explicit military alliance forged.
As the Vietnam War receded, Asean members felt that it was time to focus on their collective and respective economic development, and so the whole focus of Asean switched to that of promoting economic cooperation and coordination. Ambitious socioeconomic frameworks were envisioned and enacted, such as the various Asean free trade agreements with the major trading powers of the world, culminating in Asean’s own free-trade-plus framework, the Asean Economic Community which is supposed to promote the free flow of goods, services and many more across Asean members’ boundaries.
We live in very turbulent and dangerous times, with nationalism and its attendant jingoistic sentiments on the rise across the globe, including in some of the most advanced countries. My own personal negative experience above, although only encountered online, has persuaded me that if left unchecked, such negative trends would only serve to destroy ourselves and our neighbors. Therefore, I think that while we should not presume Asean to force its member states to abandon their various nationalistic characteristics in favor of a common Southeast Asian one, as some accuse the European Union of accentuating the European nature of its various members in lieu of their various national ones, we should nevertheless wait for Asean to take the lead in promoting further, deeper and broader understanding of each other’s history, needs and even fears. There are no significantly entrenched misunderstandings among us, so there is nothing to paper over. But sometimes it is very important for all of us to listen to each other’s aspirations in a peaceful manner.