Economic titan, political worm 

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte poses for a photo with the foreign ministers from participating countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers Meeting during its closing ceremony at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City on August 8, 2017. RICHARD MADELO/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

As the year ends, Asean has not managed to change its status as a rising economic powerhouse and a political worm. 

As Asean takes tentative steps in the direction of greater integration, trade booms and economists in the region are bullish about the prospects for 2018. Meanwhile this year, Cambodia ended its decades of flirting with democracy, the Philippines butchered thousands of citizens in its supposed war on drugs and Myanmar subjected its Rohingya Muslim community to what is increasingly being called genocide.

But Asean remains silent.

This September, as the military-dominated government in Nay Pyi Taw was driving out Rakhine State’s Muslims at gunpoint, Asean released a feeble statement expressing “concern”. It so closely mirrored Myanmar’s official stance that it was clearly penned with Burmese input.

The statement used the word “condemned”, but only about the alleged August 25 attacks on the security services that were used as an excuse to launch pre-planned mass clearance operations by the military or Tatmadaw.

The statement read: “[Asean foreign ministers] condemned the attacks against Myanmar security forces on 25 August 2017 and all acts of violence which resulted in loss of civilian lives, destruction of homes and displacement of large numbers of people.”

This approach duplicates Nay Pyi Taw’s bogus justification for the mass slaughter.

Couple this with Asean’s increasing apparent acceptance of Beijing’s near-total occupation of the South China Sea and it becomes clear the organisation is retreating from the political sphere even as its economic power rises.

Only Malaysia joined the international community in standing up against Myanmar for Rohingya rights. It disavowed Asean’s September statement and issued its own communique.

“We strongly urge the government of Myanmar to end the violence, stop the destruction to lives and properties, allow immediate unimpeded access for the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Rohingyas and all affected communities, and to resolve the Rohingya refugee problem,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said.

Asean’s failure to even mention the Rohingya was a “misrepresentation of the reality of the situation”, the minister said.

While this statement should be applauded, it does appear within the context of the looming 2018 general election in Malaysia.

In August, the UN estimated that more than 88 per cent of Malaysia’s 149,147 registered refugees were from Myanmar, including 61,150 Rohingya.

Prime Minister Najib Razak must win support from the 61 per cent of Malaysia’s population that is Muslim. Promoting the rights of Muslims overseas allows him to wrap himself in the cloak of political Islam, while avoiding offending Malaysia’s large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities by pushing an Islamist message at home.

His recent expressions of solidarity with Palestinians after Donald Trump’s ill-advised recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital are another example.

Malaysia nonsensically even says it is ready to invade Jerusalem.

“Prime Minister Najib is attempting to position himself for the election next year, trying to win voters who are inclined towards PAS [the Malaysian Islamic Party], who are more conservative voters,” said Joshua Kurlantzick of the Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

While it is possible to be cynical about Najib’s motivation, he must be commended for disassociating Malaysia from Asean’s appalling statement on the Rohingya crisis.

Asean’s “fundamental principles”, according to its website, include “the right of every state to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion of coercion” and “non-interference in the internal affairs of one another”.

These principles have allowed Asean to descend into a cabal of dictatorships, where a government can butcher an already persecuted group, like the Rohingya, and be rewarded with a message of solidarity.

This feeble approach is mirrored when it comes to Chinese colonial expansion into the South China Sea.

The Philippines held Asean’s rotating chair this year and completely failed to push for any reference to the Hague international tribunal ruling from last year that condemned Chinese expansionism. The Philippines and Vietnam are the two Asean members who suffer the most from Beijing’s acquisition of the South China Sea but, under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, Manila has fallen silent on the issue.

The case in The Hague was initiated by the Philippines, under Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino, but Manila now appears happy to forget the powerful legal endorsement of its claims to the islands where China is constructing vast military bases.

The Philippines’ final statement this year as Asean chair avoided criticising China for militarising the South China Sea. The November 16 announcement was noticeably softer than previous Asean statements on the disputed waters.

While greater economic cooperation will largely help Asean’s growing population to prosper, Asean’s financial meetings will be worth following.

The regular gatherings of Asean’s foreign ministers, however, must rank as some of the globe’s most pointless multilateral meetings. They demonstrate a refusal to address each other’s domestic crises and an inability to establish a consensus on pressing external threats, like Chinese annexation of the region’s largest body of water. It all raises questions about what is achieved by these summits.

President Rodrigo Duterte (centre) in August hosts the Asean foreign ministers in Manila. Picture credit: Wikimedia