BANGKOK — The political turmoil in Bangkok has been rattling the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), as they are not accustomed to constant mass political mobilization threatening and challenging their grips on power, let alone taking a common position. As the only country in Southeast Asia that was able to ward off colonialism, it is ironic that Thailand’s political development is now impacting on its Asean neighbors and the integration of the Asean Community.
On the sidelines of the Asean-Japan Summit in December, the Asean leaders issued a joint statement expressing concern over the political situation in Thailand and its regional implications. Thailand asked Asean to back the democratic process in the country. It was an unprecedented move, as the Asean leaders have never before commented on a domestic situation such as this. Does it mean that Asean is more open to discussing domestic issues? Will it become the norm in Asean in the future? It remains to be seen.
Since its inception in 1967, Asean has been able to weather the storms brought about by regional and international winds of change. However, widespread democratization characterized by citizens’ increased demands for better governance and social justice—fueled by growing physical and digital connectedness—now occupies the political contours of Asean as never before. The ongoing political contestations in Cambodia and Thailand, and before that in Malaysia, are good cases in point.
For a long time, it was taboo to touch on the internal affairs of Asean members, regardless of the issue. Only twice before the expansion of Asean in 1995-99 did the Asean foreign ministers take up domestic issues in member states—once in response to the political situation in the Philippines in 1986, and again during the Cambodian political crisis in 1997. Before Ferdinand Marcos was kicked out of office as president of the Philippines, Asean came out with a joint statement urging all parties to restore unity and solidarity in order to maintain national resilience. It did this without any consultation with the Philippine government.
During the 1996-97 political turbulence in Cambodia, Asean played a huge role in helping the conflicting parties there to reach a compromise so that Cambodia would be able to join Asean. Although Cambodia was not yet an Asean member during the intervention, Asean treated the war-torn nation at the time as one of its own due to its engagement in the peaceful settlement from 1979-1992. Cambodian was scheduled to join Asean in 1997 along with Laos and Myanmar.
After the full Asean enlargement in 1999 with 10 members, political developments in Myanmar then became a common issue that Asean leaders discussed, but mostly in discreet ways at their retreats. The so-called “enhanced interactions” practice was initiated in 2000 so they could speak frankly about issues impacting on neighboring countries.
In most of their joint statements issued before the current reform in Myanmar in 2011, Asean has been quite polite in referring to the country’s political condition, knowing full well that any harsh criticism would only make matters worse. After all, the Asean leaders are also worried about their own internal dynamics, with their own restless populations demanding more freedom and better governance.
In 2004 and 2007, Asean was firmer in depicting the situation inside Myanmar. Different views also emerged within Asean over how to treat a family member that refused to cooperate. In 2005, Myanmar decided to skip its turn as chair of the bloc, citing domestic necessities. In the strongest language ever deployed by the Asean leaders, the region’s foreign ministers expressed “revulsion” over the violent crackdown on protesters, including Buddhist monks, following the Saffron Revolution in September 2007.
During the past two years, things have changed for the better for Myanmar. Naypyitaw has made remarkable progress in both political and economic reforms that won praises from around the world. As the Asean chair this year, Myanmar will further consolidate these ongoing transformations and increase the chair’s overall confidence. However, there could be a blind spot, judging from the Asean chair’s longstanding handling of and views on domestic issues related to religious and communal conflicts, as well as the peace process with ethnic groups.
When Indonesia was the Asean chair in 2011, Jakarta was frank in discussing its communal conflicts and other sensitive issues. Last year, Indonesia became the first Asean member to submit its UN-sponsored universal periodic review of human rights conditions to the Asean foreign ministers and the Asean Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights. In fact, such openness dated back to 2000 following Indonesia’s democratization process in 1998, when Asean members responded to Jakarta’s request to dispatch peace-keeping forces to Timor Leste. Since then, Jakarta has been the only Asean member that has dared to air its dirty laundry like this for all to see. That kind of voluntarism—a confidence-building measure on sensitive domestic issue—has not yet sunk in among the grouping’s more conservative members, although it is the approach favored by Thailand and the Philippines.
As the Asean chair, it is difficult for Myanmar to bypass domestic issues that affect regional peace and stability such as the plight of Rohingya refugees and cross-border migration. In more ways than one, Thailand has opened a Pandora’s Box concerning intervention on domestic issues. Obviously, the non-security agenda is easier to manage, such as strengthening measures to fulfill action plans to achieve the Asean Economic Community and Asean Political and Cultural Community—topics that will dominate the 350-plus Asean-related meetings planned for this year.
It remains to be seen how Naypyitaw will respond to these challenges—as a catalyst for change for a better Asean, or as a force for maintaining the status quo ante.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a Thai journalist.
This story first appeared in the February 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy print magazine.