Thursday, October 22, 2009

ASEAN Faces Conflicts

Looking on the good side, the Association of South East Asian Countries (ASEAN) represents a regional group with high diversity in social, cultural, and political aspects, but on the bad side, ASEAN is one of the most chaotic groups.

Organization's Aspiration
In its effort to push for a single, unified community within the next decade, ASEAN puts up a front as a highly unified organization, but behind the scene it is rife with conflicts, particularly the territorial disputes, which go against the organization's aspiration to become a single community.

For example, the claim over Sipadan Island by Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia; Indonesia's acrimony when a Malaysian website claimed that Jemur Island in the Malacca Strait is a Malaysia's tourist attraction; the claims over the Spratley Islands by Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei.

Malaysian and Indonesian Acrimony
On top of that are the political and social conflicts and various other hurdles during the past four to five years, such as the forest fire in Indonesia that sent hazy smoke all over the region; the conflict over the water trade between Malaysia and Singapore; the extradition treaty issue between Singapore and Indonesia; the Malaysian and Indonesian acrimony when Singapore filled the sea with land to extend its shoreline and territory; the bad feeling between Singapore and Thailand regarding the Temasek Holding's issue [Shin Corp share purchase]; Thailand's southern unrest issue that undermines the relations between Thailand and Malaysia; the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia that culminated in the burning of the Thai Embassy in Phanom Pehn, Cambodia; and the latest issue that involved Thai-Cambodia border dispute in the Preah Vihear zone.

Evidently, during the past four to five years Thailand has been at the center of ASEAN conflict. These conflicts and disputes are no minor friction, for example, Indonesia's accusation that Malaysia stole its national dance (Pentet dance) or Malaysia's accusation that Singapore stole its national dish.

Preah Vihear Dispute
The Preah Vihear dispute is the most worrying among all disputes because it has caused some deaths and it seems difficult to resolve.

In the latest development, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Phirom proposed an intermediary agency to mediate the disputes among ASEAN countries and to find a solution for the Thai-Cambodian dispute over the Preah Vihear zone.

It is unclear whether the agency that Kasit is prepared to ask ASEAN Summit's approval to set up will be an ad hoc body or a permanent agency to act as a mediator for disputes among ASEAN countries forever.

ASEAN Suggestions
If it will be a permanent agency, one has to say that the idea sounds splendid in words, but almost impossible to implement in practice for the following reasons:

First, ASEAN already has its mechanism for dispute resolution, although it is a lame duck because of the members' negligence and complacency. The channel for talk to resolve conflicts remains just that "talk," but no solution. Setting up another agency will be a waste of time and money and will point to ASEAN's incompetence. Kasit himself said that he had met and talked with Hun Sen last week and had explained the situation and cleared the misunderstanding. Since there is an agency to do this, why do ASEAN need another one to do the same task?

Second, if an agency to be set up will be tasked to directly resolve the disputes, ASEAN countries will immediately feel embarrassed and reluctant. They will fear that the agency will try to intervene too much in their internal affairs. ASEAN countries take their internal affairs seriously and accept no intervention.

Third, it is feared that the agency will not be neutral because a neutral body should comprise members from outside of the group, so as to maintain absolute neutrality. For example, the EU's effort to mediate the dispute between Russia and Georgia, both of which are outside the EU.

Changing Scenario and Resolution
More significantly, all ASEAN countries know that they can hardly find neutrality from any country among themselves because of the conflicts of interest.

For example, if Thailand and Myanmar are in dispute, the mediation agency, or the arbitrator, or whatever one may call it, which comprise the other eight remaining ASEAN member countries will be tasked to find the solution. The resolution from this agency might be mistrusted or not accepted by the disputing parties. If the resolution comes out in favor of Thailand, Myanmar might make noises and accuse the mediation body of bias for Thailand, which is ASEAN's key member. If the result favors Myanmar, Thailand might complain that some member countries in the mediation body have enormous, vested interest in Myanmar.

Yet, there is another worse case scenario: The Spratley Islands and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. If this case is submitted to the mediating agency, one would immediately arrive at a deadlock because, if all 10 countries are represented in the Spratley Islands territorial disputes, half of the members of the mediating body must be counted out in a bid to maintain neutrality since Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei are all making claim over the territory.

The aforementioned scenario is not pointed out with the aim to accuse any countries, but simply to show the tendency of a situation that can develop when there is a conflict of interest. ASEAN countries are challenged by conflicts of interest since its inception 40 years ago, not to mention the protracted conflicts that stem for the past history. One can clearly perceive how much ASEAN members harbor bad feelings toward one another.

The Road Ahead
Consequently, it can be said that ASEAN successfully and admirably fosters speedy economic development, but incredibly lags behind in political development. The latest ASEAN Summit saw only some progresses in the establishment of human rights agency, not because ASEAN structure is inimical to it, but ASEAN countries' national traits disfavor intervention into other member countries' internal affairs.

It is not far from the truth to say that ASEAN's nonintervention principle is the most disastrous construct that ASEAN has ever created. Dozens mediating agencies can be set up by ASEAN, but they will always fail to resolve any conflicts and disputes.

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