Nationalism: a barrier to integration?

Little is also known about how the region’s 500 million people feel about cooperating closer with citizens of countries that, in many cases, they have little in common. But a recently established Facebook community, with more than 200,000 members across all 10 members, has given some insight – and highlighted how nationalism could hinder regional integration.

The ASEAN Community page is moderated by 41 young people, with up to five from a single country, and was officially recognised by ASEAN secretary general Le Luong Minh in August.

Comments on the page though suggest little unity between countries, or at least within the bloc overall. The problems of member countries have repercussions for the network of moderators. In but one example, the conflict in Rakhine State drew lots of angry comments toward the Myanmar administrators of the page from members unhappy at the government’s treatment of the Muslim Rohingya.

“The repercussion of Rakhine conflict on [the ASEAN Community] page is quite huge. The Myanmar admins felt sad because every post from [them] got comments that were vituperative and highly critical,” said administrator and university student Ma Aye Moe Moe Chit.

Even before the strong responses to the Rakhine issue the administrators had set a policy that the ASEAN Community page is for “positive” comments only. This effort to stifle debate has further irritated some, who have instead gone to the administrators’ personal Facebook accounts to attack them.

“[S]ome hate us because [the ASEAN Community] page is always promoting good info about ASEAN,” Gerry Bautista, an admin from Philippines, said by email. “Sometimes, some other member send [private messages]to mypersonal account just to bash me [asking] ‘Why can’tI post the bad side of thePhilippines [or]how badthe politicsofotherASEAN member nations [is]?’”

“Many times I seem to cry whenreading bad comments about Vietnam,” complained admin Nguyen Hoang Minh Dand.

Regardless – or perhaps because – of the online slanging matches, the online ASEAN community is growing at a rate of hundreds of members a day.

Since it was founded in August 2011, it has 220,630 likes and 23,497 people talking about it as of December 23. While Myanmar boasts the second-largest number of members after Thailand, administrator Ko Khine Min Than said they are rarely among the most active on the page.

“Most of the Myanmar members just like the page, give some comments and like the posts of the admin, maybe because of the internet connection. Only a very few members are trying to share [information] about the country,” Khine Min Than said.

“Generally, Singapore and Brunei people are not interested in ASEAN and our page … [but] people from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines people are very active.”

But these nationalistic attitudes are likely to hinder attempts by ASEAN to generate a greater cohesiveness between the people of its 10 member states, which has been a priority of the bloc’s leadership for a number of years.

In a previous interview with The Myanmar Times, former secretary general Surin Pitsuwan said it was time for ASEAN to transition from a leader-driven to people-driven grouping.

“The [ASEAN Charter] now provides for people to participate and make a contribution,” he said in March 2009. “If people take that seriously, we’ll have a chance to help drive and shape the region and the organisation. If they don’t, then you can’t blame the leaders. They have made their commitment; they have opened up the space. Now it’s for the people of ASEAN to seize the opportunity.”

However, successful people-to-people collaboration has been rare. The Southeast Asian Games is perhaps the only event that can be considered a socio-cultural integration success story, but it is still one based on national competition. Most tourism and cultural promotion events, meanwhile, are focused on business ties, while civil society and youth forums show promise but are just gaining momentum.

As a result, the challenge in overcoming strong nationalist sentiment and competition between members that is ingrained through, in some cases, centuries of conflict, remains as strong as ever.

It is further complicated by disparities in economic development. The bloc’s members range from an economic powerhouse like Singapore to least developed countries such as Laos and Myanmar.

“It is undeniable that some countries think they are better than other countries in terms of development and education,” said Hareef, an administrator from Brunei.

“Some countries share the same interests and background as other countries. For example, CLMV [Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam] countries, or Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei. Some people are not really interested in countries with different backgrounds and do not understand them well, which creat[es] competition and argument,” he said.

“I do not have a problem if they want to criticise the cultures, food and so on. [What really] bothers me [is how] nationalism prevents us integrating into one ASEAN.”

Boon, an administrator from Thailand who was one of the first to join the project, said even the administrators struggle to cooperate because they find it hard to hide their feelings toward other countries.

“So far we are trying to urge the admins to work together rather than competing against each other,” he said. “The page creator, Mr Jirapat, [asked me to] take charge in controlling the posts that are made by myself as well as other administrators. I need to make sure that there is collaboration rather than competition.”

Recently, however, there has been a glimmer of hope for those who want to see the people of ASEAN come closer together.

Network members responded with unity following Typhoon Haiyan, which battered the Philippines in early November, killing more than 6000 people. The disaster prompted members of all countries to express support and encouragements for those affected.

The young administrators, such as Ko Thiha Wint Aung, said this gave them cause for optimism.

“I believe that ASEAN must work as a community, as a family and as a united region,” Ko Thiha Wint Aung said, “to be developed, peaceful and prosperous.”