The fall-out of the Thai political crisis on Asean

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation
Published on April 19, 2010

The ongoing political conflict on Bangkok's streets and the bloody clashes on April 10 have already rattled the nerves of Asean leaders as they ponder their grouping's future political landscape.

Last week, Vietnam was quick in wanting to issue a statement on behalf of Asean on the violence. On the same day, Cambodia immediately stepped in, calling for a special Asean summit to discuss the crisis in its eastern neighbour - unprecedented moves. Both plans were aborted.

Naturally, Thailand blocked the chair's statement. Bangkok felt it was not necessary as the Abhisit government is still in power and continues to handle the crisis in a transparent manner.

Most importantly, Thailand is an open society and the local and foreign media are free to report on the unfolding events on a daily basis. In responding to numerous enquiries, the government reiterated the non-use of forces during the confrontation.

Finally, Vietnam, on it own issued a short statement saying: "As a neighbouring country of Thailand, a member of Asean and concurrently the chair of Asean, Vietnam follows with great attention the current complicated developments in Thailand. Vietnam wants to see the parties concerned exercise restraint, refrain from violence, and peacefully settle issues through dialogue so as to bring about early stability for Thailand." That much was clear.

Within hours, Vietnam also responded to Phnom Penh's request with a short and crispy message: it is not practical to have such a summit. Putting the two diplomatic moves together, one wonders the reasons why Vietnam and Cambodia were so eager to highlight the Thai political uncertainty.

Throughout the political quagmire in Burma, since its admission in 1997, the two members have yet to play any pro-active role at all.

For instance, at the Hanoi summit, the Asean leaders discussed the situation inside Burma, especially the upcoming farcical election.

Quite a few countries, including Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore, wanted a strong statement from the chair to express "concern" about the current conditions there. But Vietnam as the Asean chair refused to do so. Therefore, the final statement by the chair contained the lowest denominator of Asean's positions on Burma in a decade.

The statement "underscored" the importance of national reconciliation in Burma and the holding of a general election in a free, fair and inclusive manner.

The previous Asean chair's statement on Burma included the call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners (2003). During the bloodshed in September 2007, Asean expressed revulsion at the violence in Burma and the use of weapons in the crackdown against monks and students. At the Hanoi summit, the leaders told the Burmese that Asean was ready to share its electoral experience to help Burma; they could also send observers. But there was no response from Burma. Deep down, Asean would like to see Burma carry out a decent election that is acceptable internationally as it would be a boon to the grouping's credibility as a whole. For the past 13 years, Asean has been suffocating from the family's rogue member, who is not willing to listen or consider opinions and requests of peers.

Last October, Vietnam and Cambodia (along with Laos and Brunei) did not back Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya's initiative calling for the pardon and release of Aung San Suu Kyi. After months of lobbying, the planned joint Asean appeal finally fumbled. Obviously as the Asean chair, Hanoi can take an initiative to reflect on any issue as it sees fit. It must be noted that most of the past Asean joint statements made were mainly on common crisis such as food security, financial crisis and recovery, pandemics, among others.

Such is the dilemma of the 43-year-old rule-based organisation. Political division remains as stark as ever. Southeast Asia, now under a single Asean roof, remains the world's only region that comprises all forms of political systems.

They range from absolute to constitutional monarchies, one-party dictatorship to one-party cronyism including various shades of socialism-cum-capitalism.

Whenever a consensus is needed, Asean members take an extraordinary amount of time to decide, especially on sensitive issues.

Amid all these inconsistencies within Asean, there is one bright spot - Indonesia's democracy, and its further consolidation.

The New York-based Freedom House picked Indonesia as the only free country in the region. On the day Vietnam rejected Cambodia's request for a summit on the Thai crisis, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was speaking in front of an international gathering of the Sixth Assembly of World Movement for Democracy with over 600 participants from 110 countries in a downtown hotel. It was a vote of confidence for the 12-year-old democracy, the world's third largest.

In his keynote speech, Yudhoyono declared proudly that democracy in Indonesia is irreversible and a daily fact of life.

The home-grown democracy in his country, the president reiterated, showed that democracy and economic development can go hand in hand as it was no longer a zero-sum game. With the third highest economic growth among G-20 countries, after China and India, Indonesia is confident that its democratic development is on the right track.

He pointed out that the desire to get rid of corruption, collusion and nepotism came wholly from within.

Thailand's democracy, despite its long 78-year history, is still not taking root and the Philippines continues to struggle to find its own democratic formula. The Filipino public are hoping that the next election would enable a respectable leader offering good governance to emerge. Just imagine the implications on the Asean political landscape if Thailand and the Philippines overcome their political instability and attain a certain degree of democratic maturity. Together with Indonesia, they would represent nearly 70 per cent of the Asean population of 595 million. It could be a new benchmark.

It is extremely significant that Jakarta is taking up the Asean chair next year, changing places with Brunei. First of all, Indonesia's chair automatically pre-empts Burma from resuming its skipped chair in 2005. The earlier fear was that after the scheduled election and a new government in Burma this year, the regime might request Asean to return its chair. For 2012, Cambodia has already reaffirmed that it would surely stick to the original schedule as the general election is slated for 2013. Burma, under the name of Myanmar, will take up the chair in 2015 when Asean is supposed to become one community.

Finally, this would allow the grouping's biggest member to pursue its broad global agenda as the Asean chair. It remains to be seen how Indonesia can balance its global and regional roles.

Jakarta has told Asean that as a member of G-20 it would not be able to speak for Asean, but it can convey the Asean input. Yudhoyono's second five-year term would witness Indonesia's enthusiasm on issues pertaining to democracy, international peace-keeping and building, climate change, responsibility to protect and the anti-terrorism campaign. If Jakarta succeeds, the prestige of Asean will be further augmented worldwide.


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