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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.

Harsh Mahaseth is an Assistant Lecturer at Jindal Global Law School, and a Research Analyst at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is also the Co-Founder of UPeksha Eduservices and the Director of the UPeksha Mentorship Programme which focuses on enhancing law students' legal research, writing, editing, public speaking skills, and professional development.

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The National Unity Government in Myanmar: Role and Challenges

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Top row, left to right: Mahn Win Khaing Than, U Win Myint, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Duwa Lashi La. Bottom row, left to right: Daw Zin Mar Aung, Dr. Lian Hmung Sakhong, Dr Zaw Wai Soe, Dr. Tu Hkawng

The continuing crisis in Myanmar has got a new momentum when the elected parliamentarians of the National League for Democracy (NLD), along with ethnic groups have formed National Unity Government (NUG) based on federal democratic principles. It marks a new milestone of the anti-Junta struggle after about three months of protests and civil disobedience movement since the military takeover on 1 February 2021. It is considered a parallel civilian-led government against the military-led State Administration Council (SAC).It has come into being when the country has been facing its worst crisis ever, along with the complex political dynamics. As we see claims and counterclaims from NUG and the military regime, it is worthwhile to understand the role and challenges of the NUG.

Formation of the Government

The opponents of Myanmar’s junta formally announced the establishment of a National Unity Government (NUG) on 16 April, 2021.It came in the wake of mounting brutality and murders of protesting civilians by the ruthless military regime. The NUG includes a president, state counsellor, vice president, prime minister and 11 ministers for 12 ministries. There are also 12 deputy ministers appointed by the CRPH.  Of the 26 total cabinet members, 13 belong to ethnic nationalities, and eight are women. In the new government, Mahn Win Khaing Than, an ethnic Karen and former House Speaker under the NLD government, is the country’s prime minister, while President U Win Myint and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi retain their positions. The vice president is Duwa Lashi La, the president of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly.

It has unveiled a 20-page Federal Democracy Charter, which is based on an interim constitution drafted between 1990 and 2008 by NLD lawmakers elected in 1990 and ethnic armed forces in Myanmar’s border areas. The goal of the NUG is to establish an alternative government – a sort of internal government-in-exile – that can compete with the junta for international recognition and spearhead what is likely to be a long campaign to defeat it. The NUG is aimed at uniting anti-coup groups, ethnic armed organizations, and other opponents of the junta. It has pledged the “eradication of dictatorship” and the creation of an inclusive federal democracy “where all citizens can live peacefully”.

Reckoning the Role of the NUG

Roadmap for a Democratic Government

The Federal Democracy Charter provides a roadmap for a democratic government of Myanmar abolishing the current constitution. It includes plans to establish a national convention to draft a new constitution. Diversity and consensus mark the formation of the NUG, which addresses the multi-ethnic and multi-national nature of the state of Myanmar. The NUG hopes that it will bring all ethnic nationalities on board as it represents the great diversity and strength of this great nation of Myanmar. The new government aims at maintaining inclusiveness in the governance system aligning all ethnic groups. Calling it “the peoples’ government” veteran democracy activist Min Ko Naing emphasized the unity between the pro-democracy movement and autonomy-seeking ethnic minority groups. The understanding between and among the democratic forces as well as ethnic groups and Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) organizers may facilitate peace and unity in Myanmar.

Pressure on the Military Regime

The formation of NUG will exert a major political pressure on the post-coup military regime. The two-part charter of NUG lays out a plan to “weaken the governance mechanisms” of the military regime by discrediting the Tatmadaw, support the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), and make arrangements for “national defence” by forming a federal army. Representatives of the NUG state that there will be “no compromise” between their Government and the military regime unless the group’s demands are met. These demands include: restoring the country’s democratically elected leaders and parliamentarians from the November election, ending to violence against civilians, removing soldiers from the streets, and releasing political prisoners. Meanwhile, many argue that Myanmar is on the verge of spiralling into a failed state and stands on the brink of civil war at an unprecedented scale.

Managing Support of the Ethnic Groups

The formation of NUG offers new hope for Myanmar to increase interactions with diverse ethnic and religious groups. The 10 ethnic armed organizations’ Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) has given its unwavering support to Myanmar’s striking civil servants and the ousted government’s Federal Democracy Charter. Some ethnic communities have already termed it as Myanmar’s “spring revolution” and pledged to join the fight against the junta if it doesn’t stop the killing immediately or meet calls to restore democracy. Analysts say that plans to unite ethnic groups with the majority ethnic Burman people will take time, but that the signs of cohesion are slowly forming, including National Unity Government in accordance with the will and demand of ethnic political parties, ethnic armed resistance organizations, and mass protest movements. Notably, the inclusivity and diversity of the nature of the formation of the shadow government is likely to forge consensus building it halting the outrage of the military.

Marshaling Regional and Global Support

Garnering regional and global support is the prime motivation behind the NUG. The NUG has already called on Southeast Asian countries to boost their engagement and support for the body. According to the NUG representatives, some nations, including some Western countries and a member country of the Arab World that experienced the Arab Spring, are already intending to formally recognize the NUG as the country’s legitimate government. The joint statement of the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ Meeting held in London on 5 May 2021 welcomed the creation of the NUG. The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of international experts including former United Nations officials, hailed the creation of the NUG as historic and said it was the legitimate government. Many other international groups have called for the NUG’s legitimacy to be recognized. The International Trade Union Confederation recognizes its legitimacy. Two international rights organizations – Fortify Rights and Rohingya Organisation U.K. (BROUK) urged southeast Asian leaders to work with the newly formed anti-coup unity government in Myanmar to restore democracy, putting an end to the illegal military takeover.

ASEAN has a unique role in resolving the Myanmar crisis. Global actors – both states and civil society – strongly argue that ASEAN should work with the newly formed NUG in Myanmar and the broader international community to end the Myanmar military junta’s attacks and ensure a transition to democratic, civilian rule. After filing the case against General Min Aung Hlainga head of the junta leader’s arrival in Jakarta to attend an ASEAN summit, the shadow government has asked the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to arrest the coup leader. A letter to Interpol said Min Aung Hlaing was a criminal and terrorist for his crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State and must be tried at both international courts.

Challenges Ahead

Few challenges need to be considered in assessing the future of the NUG. While the shadow government has expectations for expanding support among socio-ethnic and religious groups, more violence may dampen hopes for national reconciliation, as the military junta regime has not retreated from its brutal and repressive moves. The announcement of a new unity government is likely to push Myanmar into a dangerous new phase of its crisis with urban upheaval, a collapsing economy. Internationally, the formation of the NUG will confront foreign governments with the difficult choice of whether to recognize and throw the full force of their support behind the alternative government. Recently, the expelling of the Myanmar Ambassador in London for his support to Suu Kyi created a difficult situation for the U.K. government. The invitation of general Min Aung Hlaing in the ASEAN’s special summit in Jakarta was also a critical choice for ASEAN states to decide whether they would recognize NUG or Tatmadaw.

The move is likely to harden the country’s battle lines since the military coup. The junta has killed 739 people and made 3,370 arrests. There are statements and counter statements between NUG and the junta regime over the formation of unity government. In an apparent response to the NUG’s letter to Interpol accusing general Hlaing, the regime announced that all 24 NUG ministers and two associates have been charged with high treason. It has also declared the NUG an unlawful association. The‘non-interference’ principle of ASEAN, which prohibits involvement in the ‘internal affairs’ of member states, has been violated in the recent move by the ASEAN. It has bolstered the Aung Hlaing government. By inviting Min Aung Hlaing and not NUG representatives to the ASEAN Special Summit, the organization has chosen to intervene and recognize the military regime. This situation has created contradictions and a lack of consensus among the parties who formed the NUG. Diverse comments and different positions of the groups concerned have caused a shadowy situation. For instance, the NUG initially did welcome the five-point consensus on the Myanmar crisis during the ASEAN summit. Contrarily, the protesters have rejected the five-point consensus as it has not mentioned political prisoners and vowed to continue their protest campaign. Later on, the NUG declared that they would not negotiate with the military regime against the people’s will, despite calls from the ASEAN for talks. The NUG rejected a joint junta-ASEAN statement which said, ‘all parties shall exercise utmost restraint’.

In conclusion, the very formation of NUG with its projection of establishing a federal democracy is likely to open opportunities for giving a direction to the ongoing protest movement and creating greater understanding among socio-ethnic groups who have long been cherishing autonomy and ending the cycle of military authoritarianism in essence. If the NUG can build consensus and accelerate trust among the stakeholders of the forces of democracy, there is a prospect for success in the coming days for the transition. The key to victory for the NUG will be to keep civil disobedience going in the face of repression and an economic collapse that has already started and gain support and recognition from the domestic and international arena. Most importantly, the role of the international community is critical. Regionally, ASEAN’s role is vital, but so far, it has not demonstrated any credible action, including the special summit decisions. The NUG remains a fragile unity in a country of the almost permanent reign of the military that makes its mission ever challenging.

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Vietnam’s Role in ASEAN 2021 meetings

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The ASEAN leaders met at the organisation's secretariat building in Jakarta [Laily Rachev/Indonesian Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters]

Taking on from the meetings held under the rubric of ASEAN chairmanship of Vietnam in the year 2020, the country coordinator for Russia in ASEAN, Indonesia conducted the meeting which reaffirmed the strategic partnership between ASEAN and Russia in January 2021. Under the meeting it was decided that the two sides need to address the implications of COVID -19 and accelerating the recovery from economic and social point of view across the region. The basis of meeting was the new ASEAN Russia comprehensive plan of action for the next four years (2021-2025), and discuss its impact related to political and economic security, industry, science and technology, smart cities, health cooperation, and increasing people to people contacts. Vietnam during its chairmanship has been proactive in developing meaningful engagement between ASEAN and Russia as well as between other dialogue partners.

Russia supported ASEAN centrality in organisational architecture, but a need was felt for further engaging Russia in the regional dynamics. Within January 2021 itself issues related to ASEAN Economic Community were discussed through the video conference. Given the fact that the ASEAN community blueprints have been discussed as well as the template for Asian comprehensive recovery framework has been out lined last year, the meeting as expected deliberated on issues related to communication and information technology, E-Commerce, minerals, science and technology, and innovation. Areas which have been highlighted during the ASEAN meetings last year has been related to the 4th industrial revolution and working out plan of action. ASEAN economies have been impacted by limited domestic demand and therefore recovery of the value chains suffered because of the pandemic. There is a need for post pandemic economic support.

ASEAN faced the biggest challenge with the change of government in Myanmar when military junta took over which has been criticised at global level. There have been calls at international level to address this at the regional organisational level and undertake effective measures so that the military junta should cede power to the democratically elected government in Myanmar. This was seen as a challenge to the ASEAN as military government had taken repressive measures with more than 800 people killed since the military coup. ASEAN took cognizance of the fact that the changes in Myanmar would be detrimental to its cohesive and centrality as well as it would challenge the authority that the ASEAN has in terms of a regional organization. It issued a statement seeking peace and dialogue among parties.  In February 2021a meeting was held related to minerals exploitation and developing ASEAN minerals cooperation action plan and its effective implementation. It has been felt that with the ongoing 4th industrial revolution in ASEAN, the demand for critical minerals would rise exponentially. The meeting also commissioned a study which is expected to submit its report by the end of this year.

In the March 2021 ASEAN socio- cultural committee has expressed strong support to Brunei’s chairmanship which espouses for better care, effective preparations, and prosperity in the region. Taking note of the earlier decisions which have been taken during the ASEAN 2020 meetings, the new chair highlighted various proposals which include developing regional responses to emergencies and disasters, youth academy programme, establishing the ASEAN climate change centre, and developing gender understanding among the people of the region. By the end of March, ASEAN India meeting was also held through the video conference in which it was buttressed that there is a need for effective implementation of the new plan of action for 2021- 2025. Stress was laid about the execution of ASEAN-India Fund, ASEAN- India Green Fund and a need was felt to proactively implement all these programmes under the ASEAN India project management. India has contributed USD 1 million to the COVID 19 fund which was appreciated, and views were shared regarding cooperation in medicine, developing vaccines, and cheap pharmaceutical products.

Under the chairmanship of Vietnam last year, it was suggested that ASEAN should prepare for the 4th industrial revolution in a more cohesive way. It was expressed that with the coming of digital economy and new innovations there is a need for comprehensive consolidated strategy which should prepare the region towards the 4th industrial revolution. It suggested that to achieve such a manufacturing revolution there is need for a better regulatory environment, global competitive standards, developing skills and capacity at the same time. The consultative meetings which were held in the last week of April, accepted that there is need for collaborative frameworks, creating the ecosystem which is required for achieving such a goal.

In early May ASEAN discussed issues related toCOVID-19 impact, transformation of global value chains and how the organization should accept the post recovery phenomenon for the long term. The workshop also addressed the hindrances about global value chain and what exactly are the opportunities which will emerge in the post pandemic recovery. It was suggested that there is need for developing critical infrastructure, addressing gaps in connectivity, and seriously undertaking measures for human resource development. What is surprising this year is the fact that ASEAN failed to raise issues related to the South China Sea very vociferously and how China has been asserting its maritime claims in the region. Even though there have been constrained statements in this regard.

Vietnam, on its part, has been proactively engaging ASEAN dialogue partners -Japan, India, Russia and the US in developing long term strategic partnership, and the new Vietnamese foreign minister updated the developments in South China Sea. ASEAN as an organization has been engaging the new partners such as Chile and Cuba. Vietnam has also been drawing attention to the activities of numerous Chinese vessels in Ba Dau(Whitsun reef ) and it was stated by the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam that the activities of the Chinese vessels violate Vietnam sovereignty and the provisions of the UNCLOS as it goes against the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea(DOC). At the international level during the press conference which was conducted in April 2021 on the issue of South China Sea, Vietnam foreign office clearly remarked that all countries should maintain peace and stability as well as cooperation in the South China Sea and must comply with the international law.

All the discussions which happen this year were a carryover from the discussions which were held in November 2020, and it means that the issue related to politico-security and socio-cultural communities would gain more momentum in coming years. The ASEAN meetings in 2020 has laid out the template and suggested new ideas which would bring the ASEAN economies together and develop blueprint for E-commerce, digital economy, digital connectivity, promoting finance, trade and investment in the region. The issues and the engagement with dialogue partners is expected to start in May 2021 and Brunei will have to undertake effective measures so that the momentum of ASEAN discussions is maintained.

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Is Quad 2.0 transforming into a Pentad?

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The reinvigoration of Quad Security Dialogue as Quad 2.0 including US, Japan, and Australia along with India during the 12th East Asia Summit in November 2017 has been appreciated and acknowledged by several countries including Germany, France, and Britain. It has been expressed from these countries that such a concert of the major democracies would provide peace, security and help in maintaining order and harmony in the region. Quad 2.0 has been gaining strength with the Foreign ministers meeting in February 2021 followed with Summit level meeting (online) in March 2021 between the leaders of the four countries -India, US, Japan, and Australia.

In 2017, during the India-France Strategic Dialogue, the French senior officials have hinted that they would like to explore possibility regarding collaboration with the Quad members about joining the initiative. The French side has clearly mentioned that given the strength and the objective of the Quad, France would like to join the initiative with the common consensus of the other four partners.

Given the fact that India is averse to any idea of an Asian NATO, therefore France, India and Australia have created a new minilateral which would develop security structures and promote maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. In September 2020 during the foreign Secretary level dialogue between three countries issues such as Maritime Security, Blue Economy, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), and Protection of Marine Global Commons were discussed. The maritime global commons and the blue economy are the two things along with maritime security which allude to the fact that France wants Quad by its side to protect its resources. Deliberating on the objectives and agenda of the Quad, France recently concluded joint exercise with the Quad members in April 2021. The exercises were conducted in the eastern Indian Ocean and were held for three days.

 India has been operating Rafale fighter jets (14 are now in service with Indian air force) and plans to procure two squadrons (about 36) of these jets while the three Scorpene submarines have already been commissioned with the Indian navy. This structural defence cooperation between India and France has also been seen in the context of India’s’ entry into the Indian Ocean Commission (an intergovernmental group of island nations- Madagascar, Comoros, Reunion islands, Mauritius, and Seychelles, dealing with maritime governance) as an observer, and India and France maritime surveillance sorties from Reunion islands from Reunion Islands. India benefits from France entry into the Quad as it would enhance extensive naval presence and add more friendly ports into the Quad network. France has expressed concerns related to China’s search for marine resources and seabed minerals near its Indian Ocean territories.

France has been looking into an agreement with Quad members for regular joint exercises and entering into a logistics supply agreement that India has signed with US and both Japan and Australia already have the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA).India and France have signed reciprocal logistics support which is not comprehensive but compliments the requirements from both sides. During the visit of the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to India in November 2017, the French Minister welcomed the “a free, open, prosperous and inclusive” Indo-Pacific and sated that it would servelong-term global interests but added that this concert of democracies should be open and inclusive citing that such an initiative should welcome other democracies.

Following the visit of the French Minister, it has been explored that given few Francophone countries in Eastern Africa, the logistics and other related support can be procured from the willing countries. India has set up a grid of coastal surveillance radars in Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, and Madagascar. France has military assets in Mayotte, besides military bases in UAE and Djibouti, and it has proposed a wide network of radars which can be integrated with other coastal surveillance radars so that not only white shipping, but rogue ships can also be monitored.

France has expressed interest in developing synergies and cooperative structure which should assimilate itself with the larger objectives of the Quad and is looking for maintaining peace and security as well as protecting the marine resources in the Indian Ocean as China has also been exploring for seabed resources near the Madagascar region. The islands that are of interest and can benefit from the Pentad (with France as new entrant) as this would provide security to its islands namely Reunion, Mayotte, French Southern and Antarctic Lands which includes Île Amsterdam, Crozet Islands, Kerguelen Islands, Île Saint-Paul and other scattered Islands in the Indian Ocean, Bassas da India, Europa Island, Banc du Geyser, and Glorioso Islands, largely uninhabited islands.

Few of these islands can support military structures and Quad countries can use its facilities in and around the Indian Ocean as well as certain islands in the Pacific Ocean. In such a context, France has proposed in the past for holding bilateral and trilateral (with Australia and India) naval and coast guard exercises. The increasing bon homie between Quad members and France serves three basic purposes. Firstly, it involves the French navy in the Indian Ocean and helps in monitoring western Indian Ocean. Secondly, the number of island territories that France had both in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific provides unique coverage and support systems. Thirdly, the trilateral between Australia, India, and France (India and Australia are two Quad members) shows that even though it is not very profoundly expressed but the blueprint is already created for including France to make it a Pentad.

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