Solidarity needed in Southeast Asia

Links: Top 6 blogs of Brunei. Indonesians in West Java are flocking to the malls to pray. An NGO workers describes a slum area in Cambodia. Thailand no longer using the telegraph service.

Partly provoked by Slavoj Zizek’s bold assertion: "It is a unified Europe, not Third World resistance to American imperialism, that is the only feasible counterpoint to the USA and China as the two global superpowers. The Left should unashamedly appropriate the slogan of a unified Europe as a counterwight to Americaned globalism." What do you think?

Regional kinship in Southeast Asia is weak or nonexistent. We perceive ourselves as Asians in general; but not residents of the Southeast Asian region. There is little interaction among people in the region. Economic cooperation is minimal. Political events in one country hardly make an impact on the politics of a neighboring country.

Filipinos are so busy being Filipinos that they have forgotten their shared heritage with the rest of the people in Southeast Asia. The same can be said of other nationalities in the region. But nationalism is not the only reason why regional affinity is practically absent in Southeast Asia.

The colonial experience of countries in the region is partly to blame for the problem. Foreign occupation interrupted the long and productive relations of small and big kingdoms in the region. Centuries of Western domination have blurred this important historical period.

There was an opportunity to promote regional solidarity through the various national struggles for independence in the last century. But this was never achieved. Intellectuals and revolutionary leaders like Jose Rizal and Ho Chi Minh were able to inspire many people in the region. But in the end, each country was left to fight for its own interests. In short, Southeast Asians could not invoke a single memorable event when people in the region fought together against a common enemy.

The formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was significant in some ways; but ASEAN remains an impotent political body. It is a regional grouping whose constituents do not appreciate its objectives. ASEAN is merely a joint venture between governments and its programs rarely involve the participation of the people.

Disunity in Southeast Asia is also indicated by the lack of interest among its people to know more about the social conditions and cultures of their neighbors. Southeast Asians are more knowledgeable about the lives of Americans or Europeans than about the people in their own region. The effect is the inability of the people to empathize with the problems of Southeast Asian countries. Clueless to the situations of their neighbors, even governments fail to determine the right time to act in assisting countries which need help.

For example, the rising prices of rice, food and petroleum products could have had less negative impact in Southeast Asia if there was genuine regional cooperation.

Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of rice. Vietnam and Cambodia are also producing rice in large quantities. But their neighbor, the Philippines, is the biggest rice importer in the world. Singapore and Brunei are also rice importers. If from the very beginning there was a regional initiative to assure rice supplies in Southeast Asia, price speculation in the market would have been minimized. But rice producing countries have inflamed public panic by restricting rice exports even within the region.

Oil prices continue to climb higher, hurting the economies of many developing countries. Instead of sharing energy sources, Southeast Asian countries are closing the doors on their neighbors. Brunei wants to limit the number of cars from Malaysia which can pump gas from the tiny but oil-rich nation. For its part, Malaysia also wants fewer Singapore cars queuing at its gas stations.

There is no regional effort to develop new gas and oil fields. Alternative energy has a lot of potential in the region. Geothermal power can be harnessed in Indonesia and the Philippines. Thailand has numerous projects which aim to tap solar power. If ASEAN were truly about cooperation, it could start discussions on how to stabilize energy supplies in the region.

Rescue efforts spearheaded by ASEAN in the aftermath of the cyclone disaster in Myanmar in May were disorganized, negligible and very late. The slow response of governments and civic organizations was further proof of the lack of unity in the region and the failure of the people of Southeast Asia to imagine themselves as belonging to one regional community.

Perhaps the best example of the deep division in the region is the ongoing campaign of Malaysia to evict more than 300,000 illegal immigrants on the island of Borneo. Most of these workers come from the Philippines and Indonesia. The crackdown has been violent in the past. During times of economic crisis, the migrants are blamed for crimes, lack of jobs and worsening poverty in Malaysia. It is peculiar that within Southeast Asia, a racial campaign to drive out illegal migrants is taking place. This usually happens in Europe.

Rich countries like the United States have been exploiting the lack of unity in the region to further their political and economic agenda. For example the Philippines, which once hosted the biggest U.S. military bases, was used as a launching pad by the Americans to attack Vietnam and many parts of Indochina four decades ago.

Emerging superpower China taunts ASEAN by maintaining close relations with the ruling junta of Myanmar. China is almost succeeding in its bid to claim ownership of the Spratly Islands since ASEAN countries are not united on the issue.

One way to counteract the hegemony of the United States, China or any other superpower in the region is to build a unified Southeast Asia. A unified Southeast Asia could also match the economic and political clout of bigger and richer countries in Asia like China, Japan and South Korea.

ASEAN has to be overhauled. Malaysians, Filipinos, Indonesians and the rest of the people of Southeast Asia should also learn to identify themselves as Southeast Asians.

Failure to embark on this modernizing project will not only allow rich countries to retain their influence in the region, it will also give incentive to extremist groups who are already successful in ignoring national boundaries in order to recruit more members and launch terror attacks in the region.

Related entries:

Myanmar and relief invasion
ASEAN human rights
ASEAN summit


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  1. […] ASEAN Solidarity Unfriendly neighbors […]

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