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ASEAN, Covid-19 and the Vietnam’s Chairmanship

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Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc receives ASEAN President’s Hammer from his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha on November 4, 2019. Source: vietnamup.com

COVID-19 (C-19) event is posing serious challenges for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2020. But Vietnam, as current ASEAN chair, is trying to make the best of the situation and demonstrate leadership. As 2020 marks a mid-term review of the implementation of the ASEAN Community Building Blueprints 2015–25, Vietnam chose ‘Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN’ as the theme for its chairmanship.

The theme is supported by five priorities identified by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in his keynote speech on 6 January. The priorities include contributing to regional peace, security and stability by strengthening ASEAN’s solidarity and unity; intensifying regional connectivity through the use of digital and novel technologies; promoting ASEAN identities and shared values; strengthening global partnerships for peace and sustainable development; and improving ASEAN’s responsiveness and operational effectiveness.

Despite the goal of intensifying regional connectivity, the C-19 event is disturbing global and regional supply chains. Vietnam had planned to organize more than 300 different conferences and activities during its term to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its ASEAN membership and to promote regional interactions. But the pandemic is causing numerous events to be postponed or even cancelled.

Many countries are in total or partial lockdown to flatten the transmission curve. Still, social distancing is increasing the use of telecommunication technologies used for teleworking and online teaching and learning. This trend, in line with the priority of promoting digital technologies, is enabling Vietnam to carry out its chair responsibilities by holding virtual meetings with ASEAN members and external partners.

Although division among ASEAN on how to respond to China in the South China Sea has undermined unity in recent years, Vietnam as chair of ASEAN is unifying member states in the fight against C-19. Since the beginning of the outbreak, Vietnam has worked closely with ASEAN members to help cope with the complex developments of the disease. On 14 February, Vietnam issued the Chairman’s Statement on ASEAN Collective Response to the Outbreak of C-19, which stressed the importance of ASEAN solidarity and promoted cooperation on multiple levels.

On 31 March, Hanoi held the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group on Public Health Emergencies teleconference for member states to share information about their situations and the implementation of control measures.

At the ministerial level, Vietnam chaired two sessions of the ASEAN Coordinating Council on 20 March and 9 April, comprised of ASEAN foreign ministers, to discuss ways to strengthen collaboration between the group and its partners.

In the spirit of a ‘Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN’, Vietnam organized the Special ASEAN Summit on Coronavirus Disease 2019 on 14 April to urge member states to remain united and to act decisively in response to the pandemic. The leaders agreed to create a C-19 ASEAN Response Fund and regional reserves of medical supplies.

Non-Aligned Movement for the betterment of Multilateralism

Vietnam is also using the ASEAN chair to advance the organization’s cooperation with countries around the world. It was primarily within the universal organization of the United Nations (OUN).

As ambassador Hasmi Agam and prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic recently noted in their policy paper on the UN: “…what presents itself as an imperative is universal participation through intergovernmental mechanisms.That very approach has been clearly demonstrated by UN member states, as shown by the active roles played by Indonesia (in the SC, along with another ASEAN and NAM member, VietNam; and on behalf of the general membership of the UN General Assembly), Azerbaijan (on behalf of NAM) and France (on behalf of the P5 and the EU) reaching out to Tunisia – a member of the Arab League (LAS), AU, OIC and NAM.Same line has been also endorsed by the UN Members States on 18 May 2020 in relation to the independent inquiry request over the WHO conduct. … this is well recognised by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres himself, who recently stated that “With two thirds of UN Member States, the Non-Aligned Movement has a critical role to play in forging global solidarity”.

But the list of Vietnam’s regional and bilateral activities is extensive too: At the ASEAN–China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on cooperation in responding to C-19 in Laos on 20 February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi informed ASEAN of the situation in Wuhan and other parts of China. The bloc confirmed its support for China in combating the disease.

On 20 March, Vietnam chaired the ASEAN–EU ministerial teleconference on cooperation in fighting the pandemic. The two sides agreed to heighten information sharing, experience exchange, and policy consultation in diagnosis, treatment and vaccine production.

As chair of ASEAN, Vietnam was invited to the G-20 emergency online summit on C-19 on 26 March. Besides sharing Vietnam’s C-19 control experience, Prime Minster Phuc stressed the importance of solidarity, cooperation and collaboration at global and regional levels. He added that fighting the pandemic should accompany facilitating trade and investment cooperation.

Vietnam also chaired the Special ASEAN+3 Summit on C-19 on 14 April. ASEAN members and their dialogue partners China, Japan and South Korea acknowledged the significance of ASEAN+3 cooperation and its existing mechanisms in addressing public health challenges.

Although the US–ASEAN Summit — initially scheduled for mid-March — was postponed, Vietnam held the ASEAN–United States High-Level Interagency Video Conference on Cooperation to Counter C-19, a senior officials-level meeting, on 1 April. The two sides reiterated the value of the ASEAN–US Strategic Partnership in facing the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic.

The success of this meeting led to the Special ASEAN–US Ministerial Videoconference on C-19 on 23 April with the participation of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh thanked the United States for its US$19 million for financial support to regional countries in combating the disease. Foreign Minister Pham also proposed further ASEAN–US public health cooperation by sharing information, experience and best practices.

Despite a rough start, Vietnam is demonstrating its leadership through quick responses and proactiveness in coordinating member states and external partners. Still, the accusations between the United States and China over the disease’s origin and their handling of the pandemic are putting Southeast Asia in complicated situation. As both powers are important partners of ASEAN, growing strategic competition between the two will again put ASEAN unity to the test in the post-C-19 era.

Earlier version of this text appeared with the East Asia Forum.

Bich T Tran is a PhD candidate at the University of Antwerp and a Researcher at the Global Affairs Research Center, Ryukoku University.

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Southeast Asia

The Role of Malaysia in ASEAN

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The three important objectives of ASEAN, a. collaboration and cooperation; b. trade and economic growth; and c. peace and stability, have reflected in various initiatives and achievements by Malaysia. 

Regional Governance

Throughout history, regional governance was based on nation-states working together for their mutual security and prosperity. Geographical proximity plays a key factoring such governance.

Although non-interference, respect for territorial integrity and Westphalian understandings of sovereignty have acted as regulatory norms for ASEAN members, this has not prevented the countries from conforming the founding principles of peace and security. The member-States have successfully promoted the interests of one another, by keeping conflicts amongst themselves as well as with other countries, aside. The organization has been able to maintain peace and stability within the region, without the eruption of war among its member-states. Moreover, it has provided a unique framework for regional community-building.

Malaysia even plays a crucial role in the Southeast Asia region and has taken several governance initiatives to maintain peace in the region. Most importantly, Malaysia initiated the idea of ZOPFAN (Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality) in the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (Kuala Lumpur, 1971). Under the ZOPFAN, the member-states agreed to exclude foreign powers, especially the United States, U.S.S.R and People’s Republic of China from interfering with ASEAN countries and prevent them from using the region as a theatre for conflict.

Additionally, the Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Dr Salleh Said Keruak from Malaysia also said, “We are united in ASEAN to solving regional issues such as overlapping territorial claims, the threat of terrorism, cross-border crimes and others.”

Regional Cooperation

Regional cooperation and integration (RCI) is a process by which national economies become more interconnected regionally. It is an effective mechanism for member state countries, mostly from a specific geographical region, to place their common interests in concurrence with their national interests and facilitate mutual cooperation and dialogue.

In furtherance of promoting such cooperation, Malaysia invoked the idea of a regional free trade zone in 1990, the East Asia Economic Group (EAEG). The objectives of EAEG were to boost economic cooperation, to promote and defend free trade, accelerate economic growth, introduce open regionalisms, and contribute to multilateral trading systems. This was a debatable yet innovative move to protect the regional interests and enhance the trade between the countries.

When Malaysia became the Chairman in 2015, it declared “Our People, Our Community, Our Vision” as the theme, which further points out the active participation of Malaysia to bring the people of the community, rather than the country, closer to each other, economically as well as culturally.

Research shows that Malaysia also played a key role in progressively advancing the establishment of the ASEAN Charter, which is a document that confers the legal personality of ASEAN. With the entry into force of the ASEAN Charter, ASEAN will henceforth operate under a new legal framework and establish a number of new organs to boost its community-building process.

The inherent power of the member states to facilitate governance for multiple diverse groups in their country has allowed them to strengthen their decision making. In the Malay language, the term muafakat best captures this strength, which loosely translates to consensus and cooperation but more than that, it is often used in the context of decision-making within societal structures. When such countries form a group, cooperation through mutual dialogue is bound to have a strategic role in regional cooperation. As observed by the grouping’s former Secretary-General, H.E. Ambassador Ong Keng Yong of Singapore, ASEAN continued to notch achievements after achievements based on the four “C’s”: community, Charter, connectivity and centrality. 

Active participation in ASEAN is one way of not giving in to the sway of any one power. ASEAN’s central nature over the years has ensured that it plays a crucial “manager” role in terms of dealing with competing influences in the region.

Another factor adding to the cooperation is the mention of “ASEAN Centrality” in several documents like the Charter. Centrality within ASEAN is defined as the proximity of the ties between ASEAN member states, intra-ASEAN coherence leading to centrality by way of enabling the organization to “gain access to resources, set the agenda, frame debates, and craft policies that benefit its member states.”

The principles of centrality also facilitated mutual dialogue between the states to tackle the COVID 19 issue. Joint statements and special summits were organized to establish collaboration between the states.

ASEAN like all previous regional efforts at community building before it will be expected to show to the world and its people, that it is a viable grouping that could face up to the challenges of consolidating political, security, economic and socio-cultural strengths for the benefit of not only its peoples but more importantly the community of nations outside the region and the world.

Humanitarian Assistance

Cooperation and assistance in humanitarian crisis and emergency is a feature which demarcates diplomacy from genuineness. Along with other member states, Malaysia has played a crucial role through financial and human resources in cases of emergencies. These included providing assistance to Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines which were affected by natural disasters like in Aceh (tsunami) and Yogyakarta (earthquake), as well as being the intermediary for peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front).

Malaysia has been regarded as the most vocal country in criticizing and commenting on the issues surrounding the Myanmar-Rohingya crisis and plays a critical role in facilitating humanitarian assistance, both on its own and jointly with other ASEAN countries.

An active stand in such cases lays down the foundation for cooperation between countries. To truly honour the commitments for mutual security, a step in the right direction for human rights plays a key role. Assistance solely based on economic benefits may be beneficial in the short term, but such an alliance shall not survive in the long run.

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US Secretary of State Pompeo set to boost Indonesian religious reform efforts

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State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to boost efforts by the world’s largest Muslim movement to recontextualize Islam during a forthcoming visit to Indonesia as part of a three-nation Asian tour. The tour is likely to be the secretary’s last official trip prior to next month’s US presidential election.

Mr. Pompeo’s engagement with Nahdlatul Ulama, a powerful Islamic grouping in Indonesia, with an estimated following of 50 million people, takes on added significance against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s push for a definition of human rights that redefines notions of freedom of religion at the expense of other basic rights in advance of a hard fought election that Donald J. Trump could lose.

It also comes as French President Emmanuel Macron kicked into high gear his self-declared mission of reforming what he has termed an Islam that “is a religion that is in crisis all over the world” in the wake of the gruesome murder of Samuel Paty, a 47-year old teacher.

Mr. Paty was killed by an 18-year old youth of Chechen descent after he used cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in a class about freedom of expression.

The Indonesia-leg at the end of Mr. Pompeo’s tour, which is first taking him to India and Sri Lanka, similarly comes as Nahdlatul Ulama, an independent civil society movement, competes globally with Saudi, United Arab Emirates, and Turkish state-backed efforts to garner religious soft power and shape the definition of what constitutes moderate Islam.

Nahdlatul Ulama was founded almost a century ago in opposition to Wahhabism, the austere interpretation of Islam, that has largely guided Saudi Arabia since its founding in 1932.

Mr. Pompeo and his top aides are scheduled to participate in two days of events in the Indonesian capital organized by Nahdlatul Ulama to nurture “the shared civilizational aspirations” of Indonesia, the United States and Islam, defined by the group with the Qur’anic phrase that the faith is “a source of universal love and compassion.”

By giving Nahdlatul Ulama the State Department’s seal of approval, Mr. Pompeo is implicitly acknowledging the fact that the group unlike its rivals in the quest for religious soft power has started to put its money where its mouth is.

Unlike its soft power rivals, Nahdlatul Ulama has spelt out its definition of moderate Islam with its adoption in 2015 of the concept of Nusantara (Archipelago) or humanitarian Islam that calls for a full embrace of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNHDR).

Countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE project themselves as models of undefined forms of moderate Islam manifested by engagement in inter-faith dialogue and varying degrees of religious tolerance.

They have, however, stopped short of addressing theologically problematic concepts like that of kafirs or infidels, the Muslim reference to non-Muslims, slavery, dhimmis, people of the book that Islam recognizes but accords a lesser status than Muslims, apostasy, and blasphemy.

They have also manoeuvred in inter-faith gatherings to evade unrestricted support of the UN human rights declaration.

By contrast, Nahdlatul Ulama has taken initial steps in that direction even if it still has a ways to go. Thousands of the group’s religious scholars issued a fatwa or religious opinion that eliminated the notion of infidels, effectively removing one pillar of Muslim perceptions of religious supremacy.

Based on statements by Nahdlatul Ulama leaders, the group’s scholars are likely to next do away with the legal concept of slavery.

The group’s litmus test will be if and when it takes on apostasy and blasphemy, concepts that are certain to be far more emotive and controversial. Nahdlatul Ulama officials say the group has long accepted in practice conversion away from Islam.

Mr. Pompeo’s acknowledgement of Nahdlatul Ulama further suggests that the State Department recognizes that religious reform is more likely to successfully be enacted by independent civil society actors with proper religious credentials and a significant following rather than states.

It is a recognition that by implication highlights the limitations of efforts by states, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey, to define the essence of Islam as well as Mr. Macron’s ambition to solve the faith’s problems for it.

Mr. Pompeo lands in Jakarta shortly after signing the Geneva Consensus Declaration alongside a host of countries that propagate conservative values and rank low on Georgetown University’s Women, Peace and Security Index.

The declaration seeks to promote women’s rights and health and strengthen the family but emphasizes that “in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.”

It stipulates that there is “no international right to abortion, nor any international obligation on the part of States to finance or facilitate abortion.”

The declaration’s signatories include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Belarus, Hungary, and Indonesia.

Many of the signatories are members of the Group of Friends, a block of 25 nations in the United Nations that seeks to pre-empt any expansion of rights for girls, women, and LGBT people and weaken international support for the Beijing Declaration, a landmark 1995 agreement that stands as an internationally recognized progressive blueprint for women’s rights.

Much of the group’s positions are coordinated by the Center for Family and Human Rights, or C-Fam, a small but influential far-right group that focuses on abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity. C-Fam has worked closely with the State Department dating back to the administration of US President George W. Bush.

Accompanied by among others Mary Ann Glendon, the head of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, Mr. Pompeo’s arrival in Jakarta also comes after the centre-right Centrist Democrat International (IDC-CDI), the world’s largest alliance of political parties, acknowledged the Commission’s report as “a re-affirmation of the spirit and substance of fundamental human rights.”

Indonesia’s National Awakening Party (PKB), which has five seats in President Joko Widodo’s cabinet and is an influential member of IDC-CDI, is closely associated with Nahdlatul Ulama.

Critics have charged that the Commission’s report fuels assertions that there are too many human rights and prioritizes religious liberty and property rights at the expense of protections against discrimination particularly on the basis of gender.

As a result, Mr. Pompeo’s endorsement of Nahdlatul Ulama could prove to be a double-edged sword. It strengthens the group’s proposition, yet also identifies it with one faction in a global battle that not only seeks to define the soul of Islam but also fundamentally shape what constitutes a human right.

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Lessons from Cambodia and the way ahead- quest for peace and reconciliation

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Khieu Samphan (left) and Nuon Chea in the Trial Chamber of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). File photo. Photo: ECCC

Victims are Cambodians, the criminals are Cambodians, and the crimes were committed on Cambodian soil!

This was the justification given by the Cambodian Government under Hun Sen to establish the Cambodian Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT) formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) – a hybrid Cambodian-International Court in conjunction with the International Community in 2006 under the Cambodian law to try leaders most responsible for perpetrating gross violations of human rights during the Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge period from 1975 to 1978. However, even before the establishment of the Tribunal, the members of the International Community in the panel was reduced in compliance with the request made by Cambodia at the UN General Assembly moreover with its implementation the Tribunal witnessed an increased political interference diluting the whole process. Thus the success of any such program will depend on the commitments and cooperation from the Government

Compromise made over justice for Peace and Reconciliation and its worth

With its 16 years of work in the country, the court is now coming to close with sentencing just three of the perpetrators for life imprisonment – despite the heavy investments made by external actors and of the struggles and the criticisms faced, as a result of adhering to the Cambodian Government’s request pointing to a renewed civil war within the country- destabilizing peace, economic growth, social order, and political stability, if the court moved ahead with its trials.

Thus, there was a dilemma on how to balance the prospective and retrospective justice, most importantly the Tribunal has been a setback to scholars of Transitional Justice, who believed to achieve through the TJ mechanism, a strengthened rule of law, democratic transition, and fair and transparent political institutions that victims can trust, instead, the court helped in legitimizing the authoritarian regime. The failure was more associated with the political compromise allowed to be made respecting the sovereignty, thereby allowing the government to choose how to deal with its violent past, while the critics point out “whether there had been a better option”.

However citing the Cambodian case study, questions have been raised against the scholars who preferred the ‘maximalist approach’ emphasizing the justice, on whether it had been possible and was practical to carry out the trials for all perpetrators or for the criminals who conducted the gravest crime, to stop the elite from securing impunity, strengthen the democracy or to serve as a model contributing to a strong independent judicial system. Critics also pointed out the heavy expenditure incurred, pointless testimonies and documentaries submitted as evidence, against victim’s testimony censorship, and on the accessibility of the court system to the poor. Debates also brought in the need to consider the time factor for retributive justice, pointing the consequences associated with the delay made in taking action (by the time court decided to sentence criminals for life long sentences, they were suffering from old age diseases, and even some of the victims were suffering from amnesia).

Cambodian Dilemma and questions raised against Transitional Justice

The Cambodian case brought in new dilemmas for retributive justice supporters with the ‘Karmic justice’ belief by the victims, pointing out how cultural barriers can affect the Westernized Transitional Justice mechanisms and asking to what extent does Transitional Justice appear as ‘savior’ for the victims of Khmer regime and against the TJ’s employing of particular tool-kit without understanding society and of expecting the local populations to fit into their prescribed template and finally against the voices that speak for or represent the victim’s demands. The whole idea of the hybrid court thus gets questioned with Cambodians different understanding of justice. This understanding has also questioned whether the justice had contributed to reconciliation (which some scholars consider as complementary strands of peace-building), through the reparations, forgiveness, and apologies for historical injustices made to repair the relationships between victims and perpetrators.

Different voices have been raised- some claiming reconciliation remains elusive with many of the members involved in the violence still serving in the Government, thus questioning the Government’s legitimacy and on the interest of the International actors to entrust them to carry out the TJ mechanism, and against the resistance of some International actors and the Government to dig into the past and on fixing the time frame for transitional justice actors to look into, critics also points out the emotionless and insincere apology made by the perpetrators which revictimized the victims and on giving amnesty to perpetrators purely on regimes interest and finally on classifying the perpetrators as poor thus not allowing the victims to claim reparation.

Way Ahead

However, on a positive note, this partial retributive justice, empowered the victims after receiving acknowledgment from the Government, besides it paved the way for the current Cambodian generation to understand their past and gave voice to the victims by allowing them to share their stories. Above all, it helped construct history about the forgotten and erased atrocities done by the Khmer regime from school curriculums and minds of the larger public and finally contributed to the rise of civil society organizations, and helped preserve the crime sites, pressured authorities to construct the museums and library, and in fixing a national commemoration day. All these efforts have helped prevent relapsing into violence to date, thus behind the criticisms, this genuine accomplishment shouldn’t be ignored. It is now important to not let all these efforts go in vain, to not be a passive observer for the marginalization and disempowerment of victims to take place, to not let the society have a faded or distorted version of history. The Memories must be kept alive through all generations, the sites, rituals, ceremonies, must be preserved. Most of all, the victims must be provided with platforms to express their traumatic experience and it must be ensured that the regime doesn’t engage in acts that hurt the sentiments of the victims and the dead must be honored. Thus a culture that respects human rights can help in achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation and gradually reduce the mistrust between the State and the victims and help in healing the past trauma and restore the dignity of the victims. 

Moreover, it must be made clear to the regime that this retributive justice is the only first step to achieve reconciliation. Through the civil society the local reconciliation, documentation of victim’s concerns, and peace-building efforts must be supported. At the same time, it should also be ensured that these efforts get acknowledged at the national level. Further, the underlying causes of the conflict must be studied in detail, and failures from Cambodia should be taken as a reference by Transitional Justice scholars. Most importantly the concentration must shift to root causes through critical ethnographic studies, understanding how the cultural barriers can affect the Transitional justice mechanism and by taking note of the immediate needs of the victims ( the economic, social, and cultural rights), thus gradually helping the victims to integrate into the mainstream society. Failure to do so can make society relapse into violence moreover criticisms will arise against the external actor’s intervention and interest to create a stable market society.

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