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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Crossroads For ASEAN

At 30, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations embraces an entire region -- and braces for bigger trials in coming years

By Ricardo Saludo

Go to three leaders' essays on ASEAN at 30

Go to an interview with Ghazali Safie, one of the 1967 architects of ASEAN

Go to an article about regional security

Go to an evaluation of the costs of belonging to ASEAN

Go to an assessment of press freedom in ASEAN

Go to an analysis of East-West relations

Go to a story about a Singaporean family and how they have fared in the last 16 years

BILAHARI KAUSIKAN HAS KEPT THE FAITH. Just before the first summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bali in February 1976, Asiaweek interviewed the Singaporean, then a 22-year-old political science student dreaming of an army career. Communism had swallowed Indochina the previous year, and even within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, founded in 1967, members "are often suspicious of one another's motives," said Bilahari, a former ambassador's son. Yet he believed even then: "ASEAN is the only hope for peace and stability in the region. And a gradual integration of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Burma [into the group] should take place."

By 1992, the Singapore University graduate was out of uniform and in a suit, tending the media as Foreign Ministry spokesman during the Association's fourth summit in Singapore. "ASEAN's future is no longer in doubt," he asserted. "It is an accepted and established organization." Today, Bilahari, 43, feels vindicated. From his Manhattan office as permanent representative to the U.N. he declares: "After 30 years, ASEAN is the most successful regional organization in the Third World. Cooperation has replaced conflict as the region's dominant dynamic. ASEAN will continue to play a major role in shaping our region's political, economic and security architecture in the 21st Century."

The same celebratory mood will no doubt animate the Commemoration Summit in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 14 and 15 -- despite the plunging currencies and hazy skies of 1997, easily Southeast Asia's worst year since World War II. As the leaders of Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam clink glasses, joined by counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea, thoughts and speeches will rightly extol ASEAN's odyssey since foreign ministers of the five founding nations signed the Bangkok Declaration creating the organization on August 8, 1967.

Against the fissures foisted by ethnicity, history and ideology, the grouping has come but one country shy of formally encompassing all lands from the Mekong's northern tributaries to the Timor Sea. Its 10-ricestalk logo, enlarged before Cambodia's conflict put ASEAN 10 on hold in July, graces banners, badges and its website ( ), dismissing doubts that complete regional union is anything but a matter of time. The organization has become a formidable trading power and regional market, even with the pummeling its economies have suffered. That plus its growing influence in world politics, particularly as the core of the ASEAN Regional Forum on security and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, have won the Association a level of respect unimaginable in its beginnings.

"European governments would not even give an appointment to ASEAN officials," recalls former Philippine foreign secretary Roberto Romulo of the treatment his father, the late Carlos Romulo, once president of the U.N. General Assembly, had to put up with. But today, Romulo says: "We are a stabilizing influence. We can gather major players in the region." Also relishing ASEAN's assertiveness is former Thai foreign minister Thanat Khoman, who presided over its birth and had broached the idea to his Indonesian counterpart, the late Adam Malik, after helping restore ties between Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur in 1966. Thanat says Washington, for one, is surprised that ASEAN has grown "so strong and disobedient," since it displaced that U.S.-led instrument of Cold War politics, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, founded in 1955.

SEATO's American leanings prompted moves to set up a grouping free from outside domination. ASA was the first attempt to realize this aspiration of a region long burdened by imperialism. Founded in Bangkok in 1961 (the Thais like brokering ties), the Association of Southeast Asia, whose acronym means "hope" in Malay and Filipino, brought together Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore), the Philippines and Thailand. But it did not go far and neither did Maphilindo, a second try for regional unity in 1963 by the Malay-populated nations incorporated in its name -- Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. What doomed both groupings was not superpower meddling, but conflicts between their members, particularly Kuala Lumpur's disputes with Manila and Jakarta over its territory in Borneo.

Yet a dream fulfilled by any other acronym would be triumph just as sweet. So it was that the region got third time lucky. ASEAN's success owed much to the communist wave that toppled dominoes across Indochina in the mid-1970s. The threat galvanized non-communist Asia to set aside bilateral differences and get seriously moving on cooperation. Months after Saigon fell but more than eight years since ASEAN was founded, its leaders finally decided it might be a good idea to get together for the first time. The 1976 Bali summit launched the first major initiatives toward economic collaboration, regional harmony and a more equal relationship with outside powers. From AAECP to ZOPFAN, an alphabet soup of committees, plans and programs began filling up ASEAN's lexicon . The motto seemed to be: For every aim, create an acronym.

Take TAC. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, signed in Bali, became the foundation for peace and harmony, including the settling of disputes, which all ASEAN members had to initial and imbibe. The organization had its first outside exchanges, the AAECP (ASEAN-Australia Economic Cooperation Program) and similar schemes with Japan and New Zealand. It now has about a dozen dialogue partners, including the European Union and the U.N. Development Program. The AIP program envisioned several ASEAN Industrial Projects to achieve regional economies of scale, starting with fertilizer plants in Indonesia, with mixed results. In 1978, two years after Bali, committees on science and technology, social development, and culture and information (COST, COSD and COCI) were created to promote cooperation in those fields, with funding by outside partners.

These days, ASEAN hosts some 300 meetings a year by all sorts of bodies and for myriad initiatives, many of them barely pronounceable. Yet saying their names is often a lot easier than making them work as they should. Today, the most daunting challenges lie in some of the least demanding tongue-twisters: AFTA, ARF, ASPEN and CLM. The ASEAN Free Trade Area aims to lower tariffs on most products from member countries to 5% or less. At the fifth summit in Bangkok in December 1995, the target date for implementation was advanced from 2008 to 2003 for the founding five and Brunei (and a few years later for the others). But Indonesia also demanded and, as usual, got exemptions for 15 items, including several made by firms linked to President Suharto's family.

With the current economic slump, there may be more calls for delays and exceptions. "We need to monitor . . . the impact of the crises on the abilities of countries to achieve the goals of AFTA," Malaysian Foreign Minister Abdullah Badawi said recently. "But this does not mean we cannot speed it up when our economies recover." In fact, his prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has already been calling for curbs on financial trading, prompting disavowals like that of Philippine Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon ("Mahathir's views are not the collective view of ASEAN"). Moreover, AFTA can zip along only as fast as its most lumbering member crawls. So businesses with regional ambitions are looking more toward APEC's prodding than AFTA's plodding to further open up Southeast Asian markets.

The ASEAN Regional Forum appears more promising, despite the tired quip about ARF's bark being worse than its bite. Over a month ago, Chinese President Jiang Zemin said he would discuss regional security at the ASEAN anniversary summit. No doubt the yearly exchange of views about such concerns as overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea helps build confidence. But no headway has ever been made in actually resolving conflicts or working out joint exploitation of disputed territory, as China and Russia have done. ARF seems content to sweep differences under the rug, hoping that like old soldiers, they would fade away.

In fact, they are just as likely to rear their nasty heads when, if not because, there are a nationalist resurgence and the arms buildup that comes with it. Then one may have to contend with the nightmare conjured by Philippine Senate President Ernesto Maceda: "Even if you put all ASEAN countries together, if China would really do its thing, ASEAN could not stop it." And it's not just Beijing; territorial irritants still fester in the grouping, including Manila's Sabah claim. The TAC allows disputes to be submitted to a "high council" of fellow members, yet no one has invoked it. Instead, governments have turned to the International Court of Justice at the Hague.

The acronym for ASEAN Strategic Plan of Action on the Environment may evoke visions of verdant woods exuding fresh mountain air, but the haze disaster has shown that ASPEN believers could use a cold monsoon to wake up to the choking reality. Yearly meetings on the annual forest fires have completely failed to contain them. Early next year, says Indonesian Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, a regional haze crisis summit will begin addressing some fundamental concerns. "We will have a sharing of perceptions and will then help each other whenever there are problems," he allows. "It's good for us to experience these crises; they highlight all the problems we face as a region." (President Suharto had a rather different response to the region's pain: he apologized.)

Plainly, no one should hold his breath waiting for ASPEN to halt the haze. Professor Richard Robison, director of Perth's Asia Research Center, zooms in on the main problem: "Business doesn't want to pay for the collective good of society anywhere," he argues. "It's only when you get a civil society that is sufficiently powerful to demand that businesses are not just predators, that you get environmental laws." And with some ASEAN cities already among the most polluted in the world -- Jakarta rivals Calcutta and Beijing, exceeding by nearly twice the safe level for air pollutants -- people may be gasping before ASPEN gets cracking.

If there are hitches in freeing trade, enhancing security and preserving nature, isn't ASEAN's coming double-digit membership at least one unadulterated success? When Cambodia follows Laos and Myanmar and completes the CLM trio's entry into the grouping, all Southeast Asia will congregate under one five-letter word. Praiseworthy indeed -- if one doesn't mind that some members are more equal than others, as George Orwell put it. For ASEAN may be splitting into six capitalist "haves" and four part-socialist "have-nots." Some economies may complement one another, but their disparity may also stall AFTA.

Religion is another divide; the three predominantly Muslim nations now face an enlarged Buddhist bloc. There is the bureaucracy: Vietnam and the CLM do not have enough officials fluent in English or competent in the requisite fields to join all ASEAN meetings and committees. "New members will have their own work styles and priorities," Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law S. Jayakumar told Asiaweek. "Clearly, in an expanded ASEAN, consensus will be more difficult."

Breaking down economic and cultural barriers between member nations requires more and more exchanges among them, from trade and travel to media, education and the arts. Interaction will then serve to spread prosperity, increase familiarity and, where one nation can learn from another, promote a common modernity and sophistication. It is a chicken-and-egg problem, though: governments are reluctant to devote precious resources to exchanges that interest few people -- but interest won't grow without exchanges. Nor are there great resources available, particularly for culture. "As ASEAN countries become more prosperous and politically stable, there can be more attention on social and cultural development," says Chitriya Pinthong, a senior official handling ASEAN at the Thai Foreign Ministry. "But at the moment, it is not getting that push. It is still seen as a luxury."

More than economic and cultural differences, however, what has grabbed headlines in recent years is the divide between hardline Myanmar, Vietnam, and once it joins, Cambodia, and the more liberal, if partly authoritarian, founding nations. The latter face pressure from the West and, in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, from their own increasingly rights-conscious citizens. So ASEAN's first five are finding it harder to keep mum about abuse and repression.

On the other hand, there are limits to what Malaysian Deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim advocated as "constructive intervention" to push democracy. Yangon rebuffed Philippine President Fidel Ramos's request to meet dissident Aung San Suu Kyi during his October visit (Siazon saw her instead). Strongman Hun Sen bluntly told ASEAN he would brook no interference. Also weakening the grouping's resolve to extract democratic concessions are the flawed political-rights records of some longstanding members. How can some ASEAN countries ask for elections in Cambodia but not in Brunei?

That the Association seems to have no committee, scheme or acronym remotely connected to democracy and human rights shows how untouchable these issues are. Yet they will not be ignored -- and ironically it is economics, the perennial excuse for iron-fisted rulers, that is now advancing reform and freedom, political as well as economic. In the wake of financial crises and misguided policies, East Asia's defanged tigers are having to dismantle controls over the economy. ASEAN countries "will need to have a more transparent economy, fight corruption and nepotism," says Southeast Asia specialist George Aditjondro. Moreover, the hardship ahead will make people more assertive.

The University of Newcastle academic adds: "Multiparty countries like Indonesia and Malaysia and single-party states like Vietnam may have to change dramatically. The old people leading some countries may be replaced by the younger generation, and social movements may become stronger." Of the men in power at ASEAN's founding, Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew are still active. Lee has ushered in a new generation of Singapore leaders. Suharto is navigating his own transition, even as such challenges as the slump, the haze and democracy demand leadership that is more open and responsive to the people, the markets and the global community. Will Indonesia and its long-serving leader rise to the occasion? The answer will largely determine ASEAN's own future directions as it begins the next 30 years.

-- With reporting from Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Singapore

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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