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Southeast Asia

Versailles in Repeat: The Failure of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus



Laily Rachev, Indonesian Presidential Palace via AP

On 24 April 2021, representatives of the ASEAN member states gathered in Jakarta to attend the Leaders’ Meeting on the situation in Myanmar, where the threat of conflict escalation looms large. Having been pressured by the international community to solve this issue, the Southeast Asian countries have agreed to adopt the Five-Point Consensus as an attachment to its usual Chairman’s Statement. In summary, the Consensus contains the following provisions: cessation of violence, constructive dialogue, the establishment of a special envoy, humanitarian assistance, and meetings with all conflicting parties.

However, a few days after the Consensus was adopted, hostilities erupted between the military junta in Naypyidaw against armed rebels across the country, including in the second-largest city of Mandalay. This failure to honor the Consensus, at a glance, bears resemblance to the failure of President Woodrow Wilson to implement the Fourteen Points as the key principles to end the First World War and achieve “peace without victory”.

Strict Idealism without Moderation: A Missed Opportunity

The drafting of the Five-Point Consensus, as it was an ASEAN internal issue, does not involve any known great powers of the world, whether it would be other regional organizations such as the European Union, or states such as the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting in Jakarta (not even a summit by the standards of the current chairman), ceteris paribus, would only involve ASEAN member states in its implementation, from senior officials to the head of governments. This arrangement is replaced when the “ASEAN Plus” format was utilized, as the decision-making process would involve Dialogue Partners from senior official meetings up to the head of governments, and currently, the European Union and three permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are already in this list.

By keeping the Myanmar issue internal regional affairs, and recognizing the military junta as the sole representative of Myanmar, ASEAN stays affirm of their commitment to the “ASEAN Way“, which prioritizes non-interference, quiet diplomacy, non-use of force, and consensus decision-making. Surely, involving western ASEAN Dialogue Partners such as the United States and the European Union in the negotiating table would give them bad public relations if they accommodate the military junta as much as what ASEAN did recently. But the urgency that exists in the current situation does not lie in the short-term agreement; it was the neglect of agreement and peace process that would impact the Southeast Asian region in the long term. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, head of the military junta, repudiated his commitment to the Consensus only four days after the agreement was adopted due to his prioritization of “stabilizing the country.” This act of agreement violation dealt heavy blows to ASEAN credibility, as other forms of cooperation are beginning to take place in the Indo-Pacific.

Drawing lines from the Great War era, this outright humiliation from the military junta is similar to the responses that the French and the British Empire gave to President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points proposal to the joint session of the US Congress. As described by Andrew Preston, Georges Clémenceau mocks Wilson’s proposal by comparing the Fourteen Points to the Ten Commandments and draws similarity between Woodrow Wilson with Jesus Christ, as Clémenceau believes that the Fourteen Points does not reflect the reality in which the world’s state of affairs is revolving. David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is a more moderate person to the Fourteen Points, and that although he sympathizes with the provisions, he believes that most of them do not suit the overall British national interest, as described by George Herring.

If only Wilson consults his fellow Allied great powers on the provisions within the Fourteen Points before his public declaration, his image would not be as bad (naivete) as it is in the Paris Peace Conference, the Fourteen Points would not be ignored by France and the UK, and the Fourteen Points would have the full backing from the rest of the Allied. Back to the present day, if only ASEAN includes Dialogue Partners that possess the might of the great powers in the drafting process, which have a lot more leverage to influence the military junta, then the Consensus would have been much more respected by Naypyidaw.

An example of this practice is the JCPOA (the Iran Nuclear Deal), which Tehran sees as satisfactory and seeks to revive the agreements made with the five great powers. Although ASEAN would have to sacrifice a few of its “ASEAN Way” principles, the military junta would be much more in compliance with the Consensus, and hopefully, prevent more bloodshed.

The Classic Conundrum of “National Interest”

The reluctance to invite great powers in working together to solve the Myanmar issue also shows the lack of united voices in ASEAN member states, as all nations involved had the different political will to show how much they are willing to go to solve the Myanmar issue. As shown in the Chairman Statement, the member states of ASEAN have heard the calls for the release of political prisoners, both locals, and foreigners. However, in the Consensus, no mention of political prisoners or their freedom is being written. It means that there has been an open hearing among member states representatives in the Leaders’ Meeting that calls for the release of the political prisoners, but due to the need for consensus as stipulated in Article 20 of the ASEAN Charter, the Consensus did not contain the provision that calls for the freedom of the political prisoners.

Although it was certain that the military junta vetoed any articles of political prisoners, it should be noted that other member states have a high probability that they would prefer stability in Myanmar rather than the enforcement of justice due to national interest. For instance, Singapore is the country that provides the largest foreign direct investment into the country, and it would be problematic for Singapore to balance its moral obligation and economic national interest.

This same situation is also faced by Woodrow Wilson when he comes back to the United States, where he needs to convince the US Congress to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Although his Fourteen Points has been thrashed by the self-interests of other victors, one particular provision survived: the creation of the League of Nations. Woodrow Wilson believes that it was the moral obligation of the United States to support the international community in their endeavor to seek perpetual peace by eradicating the destructive balance-of-power international system and replacing it with a collective security international system, as described by Henry Kissinger. Moreover, Wilson believed that it was a religious duty for the United States to contribute towards world peace and collaborate with nations of the world.

However, his grandeur ambitions faced a hard reality when Congress reminded him of the stake of the US national interest. As described by David Milne, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge calls the US Congress to denounce the ratification due to the danger that the League of Nations posed towards the Monroe Doctrine, as it would impede the US freedom of actions and called for reserved ratification of the Versailles Treaty. Wilson, overclouded by his moral virtues, rejects moderation and fights the Republican Party. And the epilogue did end in a bitter end: The United States never joined the League of Nations, while the French and British monopolized the League to suit their colonial interests.

It does not mean that national interest is bad, as each nation has the right to achieve economic prosperity. But, this economic prosperity should have taken notice of the condition surrounding it, so that a blind drive towards self-interest that creates calamity in the long-term be avoided. Had Wilson compromised with Congress, there may not be a Second World War. Had ASEAN pushed a tougher stance towards the military junta, more deaths could have been prevented.

Currently, ASEAN has not yet suggested a change of course in its dealings with the Myanmar issue. As mentioned above, the situation would proceed badly for the Southeast Asian region, as there were no great powers involved in the agreement and the lack of moral obligations. Sure, ASEAN member states could gamble that the situation would de-escalate on itself, and the military junta would somehow agree to re-follow the Consensus. However, it would be expedient if ASEAN does something that they could to prevent a future catastrophe, rather than act harshly when the catastrophe finally came into being. But still, one question remains: Could ASEAN escape the perilous fate of the League of Nations?

Fadhil Haidar Sulaeman is an International Undergraduate Program student at Universitas Gadjah Mada, majoring in International Relations with a concentration on Global Politics and Security (GPS). He could be contacted through email: fadhilhaidar[at]

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Southeast Asia

Transforming Social Protection Delivery in the Philippines through PhilSys



Social protection helps the poor and vulnerable in a country, especially in times of crises and shocks that may threaten the well-being of families. When COVID-19 hit and quarantines began, the Philippines needed a massive expansion of social protection coverage to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Countries that already had good and inclusive digital infrastructure (including internet connectivity, digital identification, digital payments and integrated data ecosystems) were better equipped to quickly adapt their social protection programs to meet urgent needs. They also fared better in maintaining continuity of services when in-person interactions could be moved online.

For the Philippines, it presented a challenge, and strain was felt in the delivery of social assistance under the Bayanihan acts.

Fortunately, the country is moving to address digital infrastructure gaps, including through the development of the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys). PhilSys is one of the most complex – but also game-changing – projects undertaken in the country.

The Philippines is one of only 23 countries without a national ID system. As a result, Filipinos need to present multiple IDs (and often specific IDs that many do not have) when transacting, including with government, creating barriers to services for the most vulnerable among the population. Information across government databases is often inconsistent. These undermine the Philippines’ transition to a digital economy, society and government. The PhilSys will help address this by providing all Filipinos with a unique and verifiable digital ID (and not just a card), while also adopting innovative and practical data protection and privacy-by-design measures.

The new partnership agreement between the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for DSWD’s adoption of the PhilSys is a milestone for the Philippines’ social protection and digital transformation journeys. DSWD will be the first agency to utilize the secure biometric and SMS-based identity authentication offered by the PhilSys to uniquely identify and verify its beneficiaries. Pilots with the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations (AICS) program will begin within the next few months, before PhilSys is used by all DSWD programs.

Adopting PhilSys will enable DSWD to further accelerate its digital transformation. By automating verification and business processes for its programs and services, DSWD will be able to improve the impact while reducing the costs of social protection programs. PhilSys will assist with identifying and removing ghost, duplicate and deceased beneficiaries to address leakages, fraud and corruption, and thus boost transparency and public trust. The unified beneficiary database that DSWD is developing with the help of PhilSys will contain up-to-date and consistent beneficiary information across all programs.

The World Bank is supporting these DSWD initiatives through the Beneficiary FIRST (standing for Fast, Innovative and Responsive Service Transformation) social protection project.

Importantly, these changes will translate to benefits for Filipinos.

Those who interact with the DSWD will face less paperwork, queues, hassle, costs and time. With their PhilSys ID, they will also have better access to a bank or e-money account where they can potentially receive payments directly in the future, promoting financial inclusion. Indeed, more than 5 million low-income Filipinos have already opened bank accounts during PhilSys registration. And the resources that DSWD saves can be redirected to addressing the needs of beneficiaries who live in remote areas without easy access to internet and social protection programs.

Beyond the advantages for social protection, the digital transformation PhilSys will catalyze in the public and private sectors can be fundamental to the Philippines’ pivot to reviving the economy and getting poverty eradication back on track. Success in utilizing PhilSys for social protection will have a significant demonstration effect in accelerating digital transformation by other government agencies as well as the private sector.

But digital transformation is not easy. It is not about simply digitizing things. It is about re-imagining how things can be done for the better, with technology as an enabler. Digitizing bad systems or processes just leads to bad systems or processes digitalized. Digital transformation therefore depends on and can only be as fast as process re-engineering and institutional and bureaucratic changes to overcome inertia.

Digital transformation must also be inclusive to avoid exacerbating digital divides or creating new ones.

The effort will be worth it. And the World Bank is firmly committed to scale up our support to the Philippines’ digital transformation agenda. A digital Philippines will not only be more resilient to future shocks – whether they are natural disasters or pandemics – but also be poised to take advantage of the opportunities brought by COVID-19 (shift of activities online) and those that lie ahead in the post COVID-19 world.
 first published in The Philippine Star, via World Bank

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Southeast Asia

Bringing “the people” back in: Forest Resources Conservation with Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma



With a lifetime dedicated to forest conservation, Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma reflected back on his career and what forest management means to Thailand. In the year 1978, he received the prestigious United Nations and Ananda Mahidol Foundation Scholarship to attain higher education at the College of Forest Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, USA. After graduating in the year 1985, he returned to Thailand with a commitment to teach and research at the Department of Forest Management, Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University until his retirement with full professor position. The excerpts below encapsulated a conversation between Dr. Pattaratuma and Dr. Rattana Lao on forest conservation.

Beyond the classroom: An anthropological perspective

I dedicated my life to study the anthropological aspect of forest management to His Majesty King Bhumibol Aduyadej of Thailand. I studied cultural dimensions of forest management in many areas of Thailand. I began with Huay Hin Dam with Karen hill tribe (Pra-ka-ker -yor) Suphanburi Province. I tried to review the international literature on land use and combine it with in-depth interviews with the hill tribes to understand the cultural dimensions of their livelihoods. I observed how they built their houses and how their managed their forest. There are three characteristics of the Karen tribe. Firstly, they lived on small plots of lands and their houses are very small. Secondly, they conserve their forest land with water resources. Thirdly, they refrain from using pesticides. Culturally, there is a clear division of labor amongst men and women. While men will clear the lands, women will cultivate agricultural goods such as papaya, guava and banana. There is limited drugs use.

It’s liberating to do research beyond the classrooms. To observe real live, real changes. I learnt more than I set out to do and they are all interrelated to a bigger picture.

Intersectionality between culture, migration and forest management

Karen hill tribes migrate in a cluster. There are more than 3 families migrating together to the new fertile forest land. They will migrate together when land is exhausted. This is most evident in the borderland between Thailand and Myanmar. Back then they did not have official documentation but slowly they do. There has been an influx of hill tribes from Myanmar to Thailand due to political conflicts from Myanmar. From my observation, they are very conscious about forest conservation and resources management. They said: “no forest, no water”. They are compelled to protect the forest from pesticides in order to keep the water clean and their health well. They are very logical. Although they grow rice, it’s very subsistent and only for household consumption. They don’t grow rice for commercial purpose. This is the land use for Karen hill tribe.

I also studied in Kampeangpetch, Nan, Chiang Rai, Phrae and Lumphun. Each place is diverse and the situation is really different. Some local tribes are preserving of the forests, others are more detrimental. We need an in-depth study to understand the cultural dimension of land use for each tribe.

The heart of forest management

People. It’s the people. People must particulate in the forest management. Otherwise, it is very difficult. When we go into each location, we must approach people and bring them into the conversation. I have tried to do all my life. Civil servants must approach people, not other way around. People are looking up to our action. They look into our sincerity and commitment. If they see that we are committed to study about their livelihood, they will share the right information and they will help.

Indonesia is a good example of successful forest management. The state get people involved. In every kilometer, there are four actors involved in protecting the forest: soldiers, policemen, villager and forester. They help each other protecting the wildlife and forest resources.

Can legal change help the people?

Legal relaxation can help lessen the pressure between man and forest. Before the legal requirement was very strict. Any kind of forest intrusion would be caught including small hunters gatherers. I think that is too strict. That put people against the law. People should be able to go into the forest and pick up some mushroom and bamboo and some wild products to lessen their poverty and hunger.

As long as people are still hungry, it’s very hard to manage the forest. There must be a way to balance the two: people livelihood and forest management.

Capitalists invasion

Much of the legal attention is paid to small farmers use of the forests. However, the real issue is big corporations invade the forest. This is very significant. Deforestation happens mostly from large scale corporation rather than small scale farmers. There are many loopholes in the system that lead to systemic corruption and mismanagement of land use. Many wealthy houses are built on large scale timber to exemplify wealth and status. It saddens me.

Would the next generation get to see large tree in the forest?

Less likely.

What can we do to protect the forest?

There are many organizations that responsible for the forest protection such as Royal Forest Department, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. But the manpower are not sufficient to cover the large area of forest in Thailand. There are not enough permanent manpower to go on the ground and protect forest resources, while the intruders to National Parks are equipped with more advanced weaponry.

To protect the forest, the state must be committed and the people must participate in the process.

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Southeast Asia

Possibilities for a Multilateral Initiative between ASEAN-Bangladesh-India-Japan in the Indo-Pacific



In the Indo-Pacific context, there are multiple partners all aiming for economic fulfillment along with maritime security and safety. Countries ranging from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea seem to be more worried about the freedom of navigation and overflight as Chinese aggressiveness is rampant and expansionist is a scary idea. The region from India to Bangladesh has a huge potential of interconnectedness and if connected to the Southeast Asian countries, it would also help in India’s Act East Policy and India’s neighbourhood first policy and further help out in strengthening relations to the far East as in Japan. All these countries combined can create an interconnected chain of mutual and common interests with balanced ideas of economic, military, social, political and people to people exchanges which would in turn help develop a multilateral.

Who can lead this Multilateral Initiative and Why?

Japan can be the prime crusader for this multilateral as it has excellent relations with all the parties and is the pioneer of the free and open Indo-Pacific. Japan has excellent diplomatic, economic and infrastructural relations with all the possible partners as it provides ODA loans, aid and assistance. Japan being the pioneer of Free and Open Indo-Pacific can be guiding force for this multilateral in the maritime domain which would help create a new regional grouping consisting of South Asia and Southeast Asia primarily based on maritime. Japan is the only developed country among all the other players and with its expertise, it can surely guide, help, support and take along all the countries. Japan most importantly is a non-aggressive nation and believes in mutual respect unlike China. Japan has no dept trap issue unlike China. Japan is known for quality in infrastructural development and with their expertise in science, technology and innovation can well lead these countries. Japan’s reputation of honesty, no corruption and extreme detailed paper work is commendable.

What are the benefits from this Multilateral Initiative?

This multilateral would help connect the Indian Ocean (India) to Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the South China Sea (ASEAN) and the East China Sea (Japan)- would help in the creation of water interconnected network from South Asia to Southeast Asia. This could be the first regional maritime grouping covering South Asia to Southeast Asia. This maritime grouping can create a network of ports which could also become an economic hub and intersecting points of investment and infrastructural development (already Japan is investing in a big way in all these countries). India’s Northeast would get a greater economic, infrastructural and people-to-people exchange as it would connect India to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Mekong Ganga Economic Corridor already exists and could pave the way for Bangladesh and Kolkata greater port exchange which could be developed as nodal points in Bay of Bengal and would help in easy and cheaper freight. These countries can also aim for the strengthening of defence and security relations in the domain of maritime and can also aim for a logistics support agreement and a network from Indian Ocean to Bay of Bengal to South China Sea to East China Sea and would help tackle Chinese aggressiveness and China has been mapping the waters in all these waters and so, to protect one’s territorial sovereignty and integrity, defence relations must be build.

An ecosystem based on Digitalization, Science, technology and Innovation can be formed which would help create a united cyber security law and all this could ultimately lead to the 4th Industrial Revolution. South Asia and Southeast Asia would be lucrative markets and labour distribution and generation of employment can be done through the ports, logistics network, economic and trade exchanges and interactions. This multilateral would form a resilient supply chain in the region of South Asia and Southeast Asia in the domain of Indo-Pacific. Marine economy can be a major factor of this multilateral initiative as it would be a major success in the maritime domain. This multilateral can also work on vaccine diplomacy and work on future health hazards mechanisms.

Why Bangladesh must think of adopting the Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Bangladesh must adopt the Indo-Pacific strategy and create its own objects and call it the SAMODHRO NITI. Bangladesh has the capability of being an excellent maritime power and it is a major leader in the Bay of Bengal and to be an effective part of this multilateral. The Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) would be a key binder. Bangladesh must realise that China by building dams on the Brahmaputra River would actually create issues for Bangladesh’s fishery catchment areas as it would get inundated with salt water and to stop that Bangladesh must work to strengthen its position to tackle China. Also, China could also create water issues for Bangladesh and Bangladesh must look at ways to safe guard its water resources. Thereby, Bangladesh must work towards countries who face similar issues with China. The Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor is an excellent example of cooperation but this Multilateral if formed can be a stronger initiative and Bangladesh benefits from it as being a hub of textile, leather and pharmaceuticals and this Multilateral has all the efficiency of becoming an economic hub which would benefit Bangladesh too. If Bangladesh adopts an Indo-Pacific Policy, then its market in Japan, the US and Europe would become stronger due to shared interests and can also sign a Free Trade Agreement with EU like Vietnam did.

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