Nicholas Farrelly — ASEAN’s unstable solidarity sits uneasily on its people

Next year it will celebrate its 50th anniversary as a group brought together under the trying conditions of the Cold War. In its initial incarnation, ASEAN united Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines in a joint quest to resist communist expansion.

October 12, 2016 6:00 pm JST

In the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is under renewed pressure to keep justifying its existence.

Next year it will celebrate its 50th anniversary as a group brought together under the trying conditions of the Cold War. In its initial incarnation, ASEAN united Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines in a joint quest to resist communist expansion.

It was the height of the Vietnam War, and the region’s five rightist authoritarian governments wanted to organize in the face of what could have proved an existential threat.

At the time they stood toe-to-toe against leftist mobilizations. They were fighting to stamp out dissent from within. ASEAN offered a united front and a mechanism for better engaging with western democracies that were eager to assist regional anti-communist campaigns. In 1984, their ranks were bolstered by newly independent Brunei.

Then, in the 1990s, after the Cold War spluttered to a close, the group quickly absorbed the rest of the region, with Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and eventually Cambodia all signing up for ASEAN’s idiosyncratic style of multilateral diplomacy.

ASEAN was able to absorb so many different political systems into one framework because non-interference in domestic affairs was a core element of the region’s diplomatic ideology.

In practice, this means that military dictatorships and one-party states can sit side-by-side with multi-party democracies. What they have in common is simple: Every country has inelegant or inconvenient issues that leaders would prefer to shield from outside scrutiny.

ASEAN provides a shield not only for despots and strongmen but for a variety of other elite political figures who need some protection from what they feel is undue criticism. At the top, everyone agrees that the region’s multilateral ambitions are best served by avoiding discussion of sensitive issues in public.

Naturally enough, there are plenty of people in ASEAN forums who exchange frank views and criticism behind closed doors; it is just that the group itself maintains a decorous public face.

As an example, while Myanmar’s former military dictatorship may have generated a fair bit of internal consternation, ASEAN never signed up for the boycotts and sanctions preferred by distant powers. Instead, it sought pragmatic and realistic engagement at a time when such an approach was deeply unpopular among Myanmar’s democrats.

ASEAN nowadays claims victory for its constructive involvement in helping to break the stalemate between Aung San Suu Kyi, now Myanmar’s de facto head of government, and the country’s long-entrenched military regime.

For the ASEAN secretariat, Myanmar’s moves toward democracy have been chalked up as a big endorsement of the group’s culturally aligned posture. Yet with festering divisions preventing a common position on the South China Sea, as demonstrated at recent ASEAN summits, unity and centrality is being tested in new ways.

Singapore to Sittwe

The difficulty for ASEAN is that while a small elite group gets to meet and mingle, as in Vientiane, Laos, in September, the activities of the policy-making body are distant from the concerns of ordinary people.

At the official level, there is no shortage of effort expended on harmonizing rules and improving integration. Such efforts are especially important right now, in the early phase of the ASEAN Economic Community. Launched with pomp and ceremony on Dec. 31, 2015, the community is supposed to achieve much stronger integration across a range of economic fields.

But the bottom line is that nobody is sure how much pan-ASEAN affinity really exists, even after almost 50 years of concerted effort. The EU experience shows that even with immense investments in cultivating shared understandings and expectations, galvanized in that case by a common experience of horrendous warfare and carnage, there is still no guarantee that regional integration will prove sustainable.

Current conditions in ASEAN help to illustrate the point. The connections that exist across the region tend to be practical. Singapore, for example, sucks in hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from its neighbors — Indonesian maids, Myanmar nurses, Filipina singers, Thai construction workers, Vietnamese masseurs — and plenty of engineers, doctors, accountants and information technology professionals.

There are similar patterns elsewhere. Some countries, such as Thailand, are both suppliers and recipients of intra-regional labor flows. In Thailand’s case, for every worker sent to Singapore or Malaysia there is at least a handful who arrive from Myanmar, Cambodia or Laos. The cascade of ASEAN economics ensures that people will often do jobs somewhere else that they might consider beneath them back home.

Such population movements reveal that income and economic inequality across ASEAN is stark, and growing. At one extreme are the affluent neighborhoods of Singapore, where the city-state’s model enjoys its glitziest success. Bankers, consultants, and other deal-makers earn vast fortunes for their contribution to one of the world’s great entrepots.

Singapore’s claim to meritocracy rests on a steep pyramid of youthful ambition and technical skill. The quality of life, man-made amenities and access to a battalion of eager service industry workers means Singapore has earned its reputation as Southeast Asia’s “Disneyland.”

It is a great distance — both in material and emotional terms — to the poorest corners of ASEAN. In a place like Sittwe, in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State, people struggle to eke out an existence with medieval farming practices and much-diminished horizons. They enjoy almost none of the conveniences so familiar to people in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok.

Rakhine State also faces the extra challenge of dealing with communal strife and the lack of cohesion among its feuding religious groups. In Singapore such communal disharmony is ruled out of order, with stern treatment for those who seek to sow discord.

The chasm between Singapore and Sittwe is striking on any metric. The fact that both places are part of the same regional grouping explains the enduring challenge for ASEAN unity.

So what happens next?

With the AEC now up and running, and the bloc’s 50th birthday celebrations looming, all 10 governments are inclined to push for further gentle integration. But there will be nothing audacious about their plans.

These attempts to consolidate their careful cohabitation comes at a time when the world’s grandest multilateral experiment, the EU, is looking increasingly fragile. The Brexit vote shows that the onward march of ambitious supranational politics cannot be taken for granted.

We certainly do not know whether ASEAN enjoys the support of Southeast Asia’s 630 million people. If national referendums were held, there is every chance that people in some countries would opt out of regional mega-politics.

The main reason that will never happen is worth mentioning too. Bluntly put: Even today, few of the region’s governments are prepared to test their mandates in genuinely popular votes.

Nicholas Farrelly is deputy director in the Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University where he researches Southeast Asian societies and politics.