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ASEAN’s much underrated soft power

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The 10-nation Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) still doesn’t figure high on Europe’s foreign policy agenda, yet the EU’s chances of stronger political, business and security profile in Asia rest on forging stronger relations with it. This means EU governments must have a clearer understanding of ASEAN and its many little-noticed achievements.

With its policy of quiet, cautious and often not so fast regional co-operation and “preventive diplomacy”, ASEAN has managed to achieve peace and stability in the region. Slowly but steadily, ASEAN members are integrating their economies and institutions, making the group a respected political force in the region.

Peace and stability in South-east Asia was certainly not a given when Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia signed the political declaration in 1967 that formed the basis for ASEAN. In a climate of uncertainty and suspicion, ASEAN started as a purely political undertaking. One big difference between the EU and ASEAN is that by starting as a political project, it wasn’t until 1993 that the ASEAN agenda, inspired by the EU, was extended to cover economic integration.

And even then, ASEAN’s goal of establishing an economic community by end-2015 with a “single market and common production base” doesn’t mean it’s on track to become another EU. ASEAN’s economic integration is less ‘deep’ than that of the EU. In addition to its own integration, it is the group’s policy to push ahead with the knitting together of its many different free trade agreements into one over-arching accord. The goal is to establish by 2015 an umbrella trade deal known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea and New Zealand as part of a policy of “widening”. The RCEP is designed to create a free trade zone for a market of 3bn people with an economy of $17 trillion.

Equally impressive is ASEAN’s role as a political stabiliser in the region through its network of dialogues on issues ranging from maritime security, health and climate change. These ASEAN-driven initiatives tend to go largely unnoticed in the west but they are the tools of preventive diplomacy.

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ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Co-operation (TAC) began as a “peace treaty” between its own member states but now includes a growing number of countries and ‘regional organisations’ (since the TAC was adapted so the EU could join) that have committed to the TAC’s message of “peaceful co-operation and non-interference”. In 2003, China was the first non-ASEAN member to sign up to the TAC, and others that have followed included the U.S. in 2009, the EU in 2012 and Norway and Pakistan as the most recent members, with Turkey and Brazil about to join.

ASEAN has, significantly, managed to keep relations with China on an even keel despite the tensions in the South China Sea over conflicting territorial claims of China and Vietnam, and China and the Philippines. This may lead some to indulge in simplistic conclusions of “inevitable war” in the region – but the reality is very different. China, after long, patient but relentless lobbying by ASEAN, has finally agreed to talk with ASEAN as a bloc about a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. This ASEAN-China dialogue is still fragile, and fresh incidents could yet lead to future misunderstandings and escalation, so armed conflict can never be ruled out. In the meantime though, ASEAN has played an important stabilising role.

Indonesia, accounting for some 40% of ASEAN’s population and economy, is in the vanguard of efforts to keep the peace with China and has steered clear of China-U.S. rivalry in the region. Indonesia seeks to keep ASEAN, which includes some very pro-U.S. members and others who are allied with China, on a similarly neutral course. When East Timor said it wanted to join ASEAN, Indonesia was clear about ASEAN’s role as a counter-balance to China, with Indonesia’s foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa warning that a negative ASEAN reaction to East Timor’s entry bid could only lead to “greater influence of China in East Timor”. This said, the minister has stressed on more than once occasion that there is “no need to create a new Cold War climate”.

ASEAN executed much behind-the-scenes influence to spur political change and reform in Myanmar. Its decision in 1997 to accept military-ruled Myanmar as a member was in part related to growing Chinese influence in that country, and ASEAN member states felt it was better to deal with Myanmar through a policy of “constructive engagement” than to exclude it.

Myanmar’s ASEAN membership of course led to difficulties in relations with the EU, the U.S. and other Western countries. But ASEAN felt it was not up to those outside the region to pass judgment on the issue, and it can now claim with some justification that this inclusive approach towards Myanmar produced the right results. ASEAN diplomats like to explain that it played an equally important role by showing Myanmar that the ‘international community’ was not composed of a bunch of unpleasant bullies.

 

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ASEAN’s rapid response to cyclone Nargis when it struck Myanmar in 2008 also helped to spur change in the country. Former ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan convinced Myanmar’s leaders of the need to accept foreign assistance, and in addition, there was constant soft pressure from Indonesia, whose leaders never spoke out openly against the regime, but for many years met with their Myanmar counterparts to underline the importance of becoming democratic, holding up their own country as an example of a transformation from an authoritarian regime to a vibrant democracy. Myanmar isn’t there yet, but the process of change now underway is testimony to ASEAN’s little-noticed soft power.

ASEAN’s post-modern diplomacy and its role as a factor of stability and peace in the region have long been underestimated by Europe and the U.S. But both Brussels and Washington are now waking to ASEAN’s importance, recognising that it shares with the EU the fate of a regional “peace organisation” that seldom makes the headlines. ASEAN plays a crucial stabilising and balancing role in a south-east Asia, and in the face of rivalries between China, the U.S., Australia, India, Russia and others, its protective fence is of utmost importance to the region’s smaller countries. And even Indonesia finds itself better able to promote its policy of “zero enemies, thousand friends” in the ASEAN context than alone.

In spite of the shouting matches that at times erupt between individual ASEAN members and China, ASEAN as a group has a constructive relationship with its huge neighbour. ASEAN-China co-operation covers many sectors and the two sides have concluded an ambitious free trade agreement. There remain problems, but these are dealt with in a way that is arguably more mature and proactive than, for instance, the uneasy relationship between the EU and Russia.

ASEAN’s soft power may be hard to understand for those who think of power in terms of helicopters and gunboats. But today’s world needs peace-builders and conflict managers – and ASEAN’s stabilising role should not be underestimated. It is time Europe took note.

First published by the Europe’s World, article re-posted per author’s permission

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Southeast Asia

Seven Years of UNITE Thailand: Freedom to be Free

Rattana Lao

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An art camp in Loei Province with the painting of UNITE Thailand on the theme of “our home” done by Archee. photo: Rattana Lao

BANGKOK – During the peak of Thailand’s political warfare between the Red and Yellow shirts, I was a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University pursuing a Doctorate in Political Science with a specialization in Comparative and International Education.

As Bangkok’s buildings were burnt down, I sat in tears in front of my computer could not comprehend nor tolerate the sights and senses of such catastrophe.

What’s happening to Thailand? A place we once called the land of smile.

I put myself together and defended my proposal. I came home for my dissertation research. But once I landed, I began something entirely different.

I called my friends from all walks of lives: academics, businesses, politics and civil society and we started talking about the future of Thailand what to do, what can we do?

Inspired by the KEEPS project at the London School of Economics, where I did my Master of Sciences in Development Studies, we initiated an art project for political liberation.

Something Freire would be proud of.

We took paint colors, brushes and canvases to rural areas and began using art as mean to break political deadlocks – to initiate a conversation. We asked our students to paint the future of Thailand in their visions.

From a humble beginning in 2011, we grew in size and scope. UNITE Thailand is now a global youth networks of like-minded individuals who want to make a difference for Thailand. We are an educational project with 3,000 members.

We have collaborated with the Open Society Foundation in 2012 to create the 1st IDEA Asia Youth Forum where we brought together 200 Asia youth from 22 countries to work with Thai university students in Thailand for 2 weeks.

We have worked with the International Labour Organizations in 2013 – 2014VDO to promote the Sapansiang Campaign that addresses the positive images of migrant workers in Thailand.

Anna Olsen, the Technical Specialist TRIANGLE in ASEAN program of the ILO said, “working with UNITE Thailand allowed us to reach young Thai people with our messages of protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers who contribute so much to Thai society and development.”

Since its inception, MCOT Thailand and the Anandamahidol Foundation have helped to scale up our 20 art camps for our students nation-wide by creating ongoing documentaries that capture the essences of what we try to do on the ground.

Sitting here on the eve of International Youth Day of 2018, I am writing to my students globally that never let anyone tell us what we are and are not capable of. The power of the young is momentous and paramount. Never let your inspiration, motivation and determination die down just because what we think seem impossible or someone else tell us so.

Thailand is far from where we want it to be. It’s still rotten with corruption, rampant inequality and lack democracy. But each brush we stroke, each project we strike, we do it with hope and dignity, we do it to empower and we aspire to make a difference.

Mayaclear Aphornsuvan, UNITE Thailand Youth Representative, encapsulates her seven years experiences with the movement.

“Opportunities, dreams, and chances seem so far away when no one is by your side. That’s how it felt to me when I was in high school, at least. But I crossed paths with UNITE Thailand by chance, and it was the first time a group of people believed in me. And in turn, this gave me all the strength I needed to believe in myself and others. UNITE Thailand gives opportunities to those who often get ignored. But the first opportunity in one’s life is oftentimes the most important.  UNITE Thailand means the world to me, because they gave me a whole new world of opportunity and dreams.”

On behalf of UNITE Thailand, we thank our friends from all over the world for showering us with your trust and enabling us to keep dreaming.

We, 3,000 of UNITE Thailand, dedicate this project to His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama the ninth to the Chakri Dynasty, our King of Education, for not only sponsoring my transatlantic education through the Anandamahidol Foundation, but for providing Thailand with a necessary guiding light. We wish his soul rest in peace. We wish him well.

We promise to be kind and find peace from within outward.

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Southeast Asia

What are the causes of the current calamity in Laos? An Interview with Dr. Lia Genovese

Rattana Lao

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The Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower project is financed by companies from South Korea (SK Engineering and Korea Western Power), Thailand’s Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding and the Lao government. A statement issued by Mekong Eye on 31 July 2018 stated that Japan is also involved in its financing.

A devastating incident occurred in the Sanamxay district of Attapeu province in southern Laos. On the evening of 22 July 2018, engineers at SK Engineering discovered that one of the project’s supporting dams had been partially washed out and notified the Lao authorities. Apparently, efforts to repair the damaged structure were hampered by the state of the roads, which delayed the necessary heavy equipment reaching the area before disaster struck the very next day. On 23 July, the top of a saddle dam at one of the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy reservoirs collapsed, releasing billions of cubic feet of water. Over 6,000 people have already been evacuated to emergency shelters. The flood has caused severe damage to private property and infrastructure. The dam collapse has also affected villages downstream in Cambodia.

The precise death toll is still unknown and has oscillated between 31 and 35 victims. On 5 August, the Chinese agency Xinhua stated that 34 people were confirmed dead and scores more are still unaccounted for.

Early official statements calling the catastrophe a natural disaster caused by seasonal rains, are being disputed by experts. During an interview with the BBC World Service on 25 July, Dr. Ian Baird, Associate professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, unequivocally attributed the disaster to poor management. Furthermore, the South Korean building company, SK Engineering & Construction, asserts that “it warned the [Lao] government”.

The disaster could have been prevented with better management, greater risk assessment and better building standards, according to the Lao government. On 27 July, four days after the dam collapse, the Lao Energy Minister, Mr. Khammany Inthirath, told a press conference in Vientiane that the disaster was caused by substandard construction.

Attapeu province is highly contaminated by unexploded ordnances (UXO, remnants of the Vietnam conflict), and although parts of the province have been cleared of UXO, the UN recommends caution when digging, since cluster bombs are more likely to be buried (‘Lao PDR: Flash Flooding in Sanamxay’, District Office of the UN Resident Coordinator Situation Report No. 05 (as of 1 August 2018).

Livestock, buffaloes and domestic animals have perished. On 3 August, the Vientiane Times reported the loss at more than 12,000 animals, as well as more than 19,000 chickens and other fowl, while 280 fishponds were damaged.

What are the immediate needs to help rebuild Laos?

Numerous governments have sent funds and humanitarian aid, including Thailand, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Cambodia, the European Union (EU), the US and North Korea. It seems that supplies have reached the affected areas with some difficulty, due to the state of the roads, damaged by the flood and covered in rivers of mud. According to a Voice of America report published on 6 August: “Satellite images show Attapeu lying on a bend of the river with a pre-crisis network of roads, but a later image shows the flooded area as a brown mass of mud with few structures left recognizable”.

Cash donations have also been collected. The Lao bank BCEL set up the One Heart fund-raising initiative for people to donate by debit or credit cards. In Thailand, donations collected by Krungthai Bank for the flood victims had reached 25 million baht by the end of July (account number 067-12886-4 of Krungthai Bank, Government House branch, Cash donations are proving effective in helping victims of this disaster, while the delivery of relief aid (blankets, medicines, safe drinking water, food, etc.) is hampered by practical difficulties in accessing the affected areas.

Do you think the country is resilient enough to weather this chaos?

As a concerned citizen of the world, rather than an expert on development strategies, in my view there are good chances that Laos, and particularly the affected areas in Attapeu province, will weather this catastrophe. Laos has much at stake in its chosen development strategy aimed at energy generation. This is a setback in the country’s ambitious plan to have a total of 100 dams by 2040. Approximately, 85 percent of the energy generated by these dams is exported.

What needs to be done differently for Laos to recover and sustain?

Since 1971, the UN has classed Laos as a Least Developed Country (LDC), a label the country is trying to shed. Laos is traversed by the Mekong for hundreds of miles, from north to south, before this great river flows into Cambodia and the delta in Vietnam. Laos has said in the past that it is making the best of a punishing geography, due to the country being landlocked.

Yearly, the sale of energy contributes around $650 million to the country’s GDP, but still only half of the revenue generated by ore production from mining investment projects approved by the central government, which in 2017 reached around $1.2 billion.

Unlike some of her neighbours (Thailand and the Philippines, chiefly), Laos has shown negligible interest in the potential of renewable energy, despite enjoying an average of 1,800-2,000 hours of sunlight per year, or 200-300 sunlight days per year, particularly in the south of the country. Consequently, progress in sources of renewable energy has been slow and foreign investment has lagged behind, in contrast to the aggressive push for hydropower projects.

What Laos wishes to do is secondary to other countries’ vision for Laos. A number of countries, as well as NGOs, environmental and human rights organisations, have expressed their reservations about Laos’ stated hydropower goals, because of the cost to the country’s ecology, and the human cost caused by the displacement of thousands of families. Laos’ potential in generating energy for sale was known to the French colonisers a century ago but, despite a number of surveys shortly after the 1893 annexation of Laos as the fifth province of French Indochina, the French colonial government elected not to exploit the potential of the Nam Theun river, due to the massive investment required in building an often non-existent infrastructure. Only in recent years, was this massive hydropower project built, with funding from the World Bank, among others.

Laos can recover from this tragedy, through its own resources and with help from the international community.

What can the public immediately do to save Laos?

In the immediate aftermath of this man-made disaster, the public should follow events and contribute with cash donations and goods in kind, and pay attention to messages from the Lao government and aid agencies as to the most effective ways to assist the affected communities.

For the longer term, a rethink of Laos’ development goals is essential. Much of Laos’ energy for sale is exported to its neighbours, where it is squandered on excessive air-conditioning for shopping malls, supermarkets, offices and homes, entertainment places, etc. Laos’ energy-hungry neighbours need to understand the hidden “costs” to a poor country like Laos, where the race to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” is being achieved at the expense of natural resources, human capital and tragedies.

Concerned members of the public can lobby their respective governments for civil society to be respected in Laos, as a forum for free expression. It is essential that Lao citizens are involved in the consultation process for new hydropower projects or other large-scale projects which involve environmental degradation, a high level of risk and loss of a traditional way of life for communities along the Mekong.

Building dams along the Mekong must be discussed as a transnational issue, rather than pertaining to Laos alone, as was made clear in the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy disaster affecting downstream villages in Cambodia.

Pressure should be applied on the Lao government to ensure transparency in its investigations of Lao communities affected by the massive flooding in Attapeu province.

The 31 July statement issued by Mekong Watch, mentioned earlier, urges donor countries and development agencies to support the Lao government “in seeking compensation from the dam companies, and re-direct their aid policies that rely on hydropower development”.

About Lia Genovese

Lia Genovese holds a PhD from SOAS-University of London for a Dissertation titled ‘The Plain of Jars of North Laos – Beyond Madeleine Colani’. Her current research interests include: the Plain of Jars of Laos; French colonial archaeology; the megaliths of South and Southeast Asia; Iron Age mortuary practices; cultural heritage and conservation. She is currently working on a critical biography of the life and work of the French archaeologist Madeleine Colani.

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Explaining Gendered Wartime Violence: Rohingya Ethnic Cleansing

Devika Khandelwal

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Image source: Al-Jazeera

The United Nations described Rohingyas as ‘amongst the most persecuted minority groups in the world.’ News reports and refugee testimonies have confirmed that the plight of Muslims in Rakhine State of Myanmar is atrocious. The humanitarian crisis taking place in the Rakhine state has led to the death of an appalling number of Rohingya’s Muslims. It has been reported, that nearly 500,000 people have fled destruction of their livelihood and, are currently living in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The UN reports suggest that Rohingyas have faced “killings, torture, rape and arson”, by Burmese troops. It has been categorised as a ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing’ of Muslims in Myanmar.

Rohingya Muslims represent the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar, and the majority lived in Rakhine state before the violence broke out. Myanmar is predominantly a Buddhist country which has for decades denied Muslims citizenship, they have been subjected to brutal government and police violence, and their identity has been decreased to that of an ‘illegal immigrant.’ On the 25th of August, 2017 the Rohingya militant army launched a deadly attack on the Muslims which has culminated into a systematic case of ethnic violence, turning into ethnic cleansing. They have slowly, but successfully forced majority of the Muslims to flee the country, resulting in one of the deadliest case of violence in the 21st century.

Within this Muslim minority exists another kind of minority, ‘Rohingya Women’ who have been subjected to sexual violence and rape by the army militants. It has been reported that tens of thousands of young girls and women of the Muslim community have been sexually violated and raped by the army militants In the report prepared for the UN Commission on Human Rights, Gay J. McDougall defined wartime rape as “a deliberate and strategic decision on the part of combatants to intimidate and destroy ‘the enemy’ as a whole by raping and enslaving women who are identified as members of the opposition group.” However, wartime rape is not a new phenomenon. Many historical and anthropological researchers have provided us with evidence that rape during war can be traced back to earlier wars. It was reported that during the Second World War, the city of Berlin witnessed extremely high levels of rape and sexual violence against women by the Soviet forces. It has been estimated that around 900,000 women were raped and violated during the war.The infamous ‘Rape of Nanking’ is another case where Japanese soldiers reportedly raped an estimated 20,000 to 80,000 women in the city of Nanjing, China in 1937.

According to the Human Rights Watch report titled ‘All of My Body was in Pain: Sexual Violence against Rohingya Women and Girls in Burma’, women and girls are brutally being raped and sexually violated, humiliated, beaten up and even killed by the Burmese militants. They also suffer from the ordeal of seeing their children, parents or partners being murdered in front of them. The Burmese militant army is using systematic rape as a weapon of war in the massacre of the Rohingyas – using women to be the easy target, and thereby making the Rohingya crisis a grave gender concern. Priyanka Motaparthy, a senior researcher in the Emergencies division of the Human Rights Watch, mentions in a Human Rights Watch report, “These horrific attacks on Rohingya women and girls by security forces add a new and brutal chapter to the Burmese military’s long and sickening history of sexual violence against women.”

It is believed that sexual violence and rape is systematically used against women during wartime due multiple reasons. In addition to women being ‘easy targets’, they are subjected to this ordeal in order to break down the reproductive cycle of an ethnicity, which thereby can result in eliminating that ethnic population altogether. It is also used to decrease or break down the morale of their enemy population, who are responsible for securing their women and girls, thus weakening their opponents. Therefore, the connecting factor between ‘gender based violence’ and ‘wartime’ are the underlying patriarchal values that persists in societies and dictates their culture. Within this structure, it is often assumed that a woman’s honor resides in her reproductive system, violating her reproductive system is seen as a way of stripping her honor, subjecting her to humiliation and furthermore gaining ‘power.’ It is a way of systematically destroying a community as a whole.

This is not the first time the world is witnessing gender based violence. However, the silence on the issue and lack of action by international authorities such as the United Nations is alarming. Urgent and crucial steps need to be taken by the Burmese government along with other International Organizations to bring relief to these women and girls. There is also an urgent need to implement stringent policies and necessary actions must be taken against people who use of sexual violence during wartime. However, the most urgent need of the hour is to overthrow patriarchal values from societies all across the world. Even though this is optimistic, it is important to instill a sense of equality between men and women, which in turn could help in eliminating the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

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