Denial spells irrelevance for Asean
text size

Denial spells irrelevance for Asean

One big reason why members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) get along so splendidly is that they avoid talking about uncomfortable subjects, such as stunted democratic development or human rights abuses.

The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, adopted in 1976, preaches "mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations". It also calls for "non-interference in the internal affairs of one another".

Not even the "genocide" -- to use the United Nations' description -- of the Rohingya in Myanmar can shake Asean leaders' commitment to denial of reality. There was some grumbling in Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia at the peak of the Myanmar army's savagery two years ago but it passed quickly.

In Cambodia, a rigged election last year returned dictator Hun Sen to power with his party occupying all 125 seats in the National Assembly. Such miracles are possible when you have a compliant court that dissolves the only credible opposition party.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte's "war on drugs" has resulted in the deaths of 6,600 drug suspects since 2016, according to police data released last week. New York-based Human Rights Watch puts the total much higher, at 12,000.

In Thailand, where the Asean summit took place over the weekend, an election heavily tilted in favour of the status quo of the past five years helped the junta make the transition from a pure military government to a pro-military government. "Everything remains the same," Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha remarked after every last one of the 250 senators who were handpicked by the regime voted for him as prime minister.

But you won't hear Asean leaders talking about these or other uncomfortable topics. It's all harmony and smiley photo opps as the promises and opportunities of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) ring too loud for any of these problems to be heard.

The AEC Blueprint 2025, which sets out the vision of a single market and production base in six years' time, is something that everyone can get on board with. Democracy and human rights are not part of this plan, as free mobility of goods, services, investment, capital and skilled labour are far more important. If this is the price we are willing to pay so we can prosper, it is shameful.

The hope that once the AEC dream is realised and everyone is rich enough, we will get around to democratic development and protection of human rights, is naive and dangerous in my view. If Myanmar's military can continue to kill off the Rohingya, how many of them will be left by then? If Hun Sen still gets everything his way, who will be in power in Cambodia a decade from now? Mr Duterte is already aiming for his daughter to be the next president of the Philippines, and who knows what will happen when Gen Prayut asks for "more time"?

But if Asean leaders aren't prepared to stand up for human rights, we can at least hope they will take a stand on another issue of grave concern, which is saving our region from the ravages of climate change.

The first Asean Climate Change Partnership Conference (CCPC) was held in Manila last year, and the follow-up took place in Singapore earlier this month, and that is a good sign. Regional collaboration on carbon markets, with a "cap and trade" system, is one area participants have been exploring.

So far, only Singapore has announced a carbon tax. It took effect this year and will contribute to efforts to lower greenhouse emissions, something that other members should emulate. Despite its small land area, Singapore is the world's 26th largest carbon emitter per capita (in Asean, only Indonesia is higher at 15th). But if Singapore can do it, everyone should be able to do it, and we should all be working together toward a carbon tax and caps.

Scientists were shocked last week when they found out that the Arctic permafrost is thawing 70 years sooner than predicted -- one indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 years. If Asean is not concerned about what individual member states are doing about democracy and human rights, at least we can press our leaders to take action on this front.

And of course, it would help if we work together to create less pollution in the air and plastics in the ocean to stop ourselves from drowning.

Erich Parpart

Senior Reporter - Asia Focus

Senior Reporter - Asia Focus

Do you like the content of this article?