To build one community, bloc needs to engage media

To build one community, bloc needs to engage media

With the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) entering its 48th year, the question media specialists ask is how can media help Asean bring the 10 member states into one community.

What is evident in leading newspapers is that they report what is newsworthy, which includes important Asean meetings, not what Asean does routinely. Recent examples in this paper were Malaysia’s decision to close down two business newspapers, and Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to register for the general elections in her country.

The same was true in early June, according to online versions of leading newspapers. The Jakarta Post ran a story about asylum seekers heading for Australia being given supplies by the Australian navy and sent back to Indonesia. The Star of Malaysia wrote about child abuse costing the region’s economies billions of dollars annually. The Philippine Daily Inquirer carried an opinion piece criticising China over activities in the South China Sea while the Manila Bulletin reported President Benigno Aquino hailing Japan’s stand. The Straits Times of Singapore carried a report about Myanmar jailing a writer for two years with hard labour for insulting religion. The Bangkok Post reported army “trafficker” Manas Kongpan being charged on 13 counts with regard to Rohingya asylum seekers. The Borneo Bulletin ran a story on the Philippines rice terraces facing threat of becoming urban jungles. The Cambodia Daily reported the Cambodian People Party’s plans to woo Cambodian overseas. The Phnom Penh Post noted that ten Indonesian migrants previously held in a casino had gone home. The Vientiane Times said about 23 mining licences were revoked in late May as they were not operating commercially. The Myanmar Times reported that humanitarian relief teams were unable to gain access to 727 migrants and asylum seekers rescued by the Myanmar navy off the Ayeyarwady Delta. Vietnam’s Nhan Dan carried a report quoting New Zealand as expressing concern over tension in what Vietnam calls the East Sea.

Though Asean’s engagement of the media has been lukewarm for too many years, Asean’s founding fathers did recognise the importance of media early on and successors in recent years reaffirmed their appreciation of this. In 1969, two years after the birth of Asean, the then five member states signed a media-specific agreement in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia that, among other things, called for radio and television to broadcast regular programmes, and for mass media as a whole to organise seminars, and examine the possibilities of exchanging experts. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand are Asean's founders.

During the subsequent three decades, Asean made news as it reacted to the falls to communist rule of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos in 1975, notably by inaugurating the leaders’ summit in 1976 and to the Vietnamese military intervention in Cambodia by supporting a tripartite coalition through the 1980s. Asean captured media attention again in 1992 when the organisation agreed to launch a free trade area, a move that convinced Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia to come on board in independent steps that were completed in 1997. Brunei joined Asean in 1984. Through the 1990s, media monitored Asean’s development of an annual security forum, called the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), that drew all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — and the development of partnerships with China, Japan and South Korea.

But these latter moves, though strategically important, failed to inspire the passion stirred up by the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities in Cambodia from 1975-1979, or the conflicts that kept Cambodia’s western border with Thailand on edge as a result of the Vietnamese intervention through the 1980s. Though disputes over the South China Sea in more recent years have risen and ebbed, effectively splitting Asean members and keeping them in the news, Asean activities have drawn limited interest.

However, Asean’s resolve to build a community opened a new chapter that the media pursued from the initial steps taken early in the 21st century. But it was not until 2012 that Asean voiced appreciation for the importance of media in this endeavour, when ministers responsible for information called on mainstream and social media to facilitate the free flow of information. Two years later the ministers entreated the media to be socially responsible and to work for a “peaceful and prosperous” community.

An Asean Communication Master Plan (ACMP) released by the Asean Secretariat in 2014 provides direction for traditional, electronic and social media to build an identity and a sense of belonging among the bloc's people.

The accent on identity is drawing positive responses from Asean’s young people. According to a survey of universities conducted by the Asean Foundation and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in 2014, over 80% consider themselves “citizens of Asean”. An earlier survey in 2007 conceded that this meant different things to different nationals, with many considering themselves Asean simply because they are citizens of a member state. While acknowledging that “national belonging” is more salient, survey leaders said students’ responses led them to think that they were expressing “a degree” of regional citizenship or “attachment” to the region.

Asean is shaping up as a community due to vision and collective effort. What it must do now is to engage the media wholeheartedly in the task of reaching out to the people of Asean.

Anuraj Manibhandu is deputy dean for student affairs of Pridi Banomyong International College, Thammasat University, and a former Bangkok Post news editor.

Anuraj Manibhandu

Former Bangkok Post news editor

Anuraj Manibhandu is deputy dean for student affairs of Pridi Banomyong International College, Thammasat University, and a former Bangkok Post news editor.

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