Standing By

By Chan, Yu Ping | Harvard International Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Standing By


Chan, Yu Ping, Harvard International Review


ASEAN in Crisis

Before the 1999 Meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bangkok, Shanmugam Jayakumar, foreign minister of Singapore, cautioned that ASEAN had to counter "the perception of ASEAN as ineffective and a sunset organisation."

The issues that prompted this dire warning two years ago are still relevant today. They point to a significant need to re-evaluate ASEAN's mode of operation--the "ASEAN way" of informal dialogue, a refusal to openly criticize member countries' policies, a continuous emphasis on consensus and rapport, and, most importantly, a norm of non-intervention in each other's affairs. Recent events have shown that ASEAN's way, particularly with non-interference, is a relic of the past and is not equipped to deal with the pressing problems facing ASEAN today.

ASEAN's obsolescence was thrown into focus in the late 1990s. Two crises shook the pillars of the non-intervention standard: first, the Asian economic crisis in 1997, and then the East Timor debacle in 1999. During the economic crisis, ASEAN was criticized by many for doing nothing as the economies of its members contracted violently and set off a global panic. People also criticized ASEAN's reluctance to consider creating an Asian Economic Fund to ameliorate such crises and the unwillingness of other ASEAN member nations to criticize or even advise each other. ASEAN did not warn the Thai government when it decided to float the Thai baht, a decision that set off the crisis. Again, members were silent when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad made ill timed comments on US investors and when the Indonesians rejected the IMF's initial relief plan. ASEAN's perceived failure in adequately addressing the Asian economic crisis is even more damning because the organization is popularly recognized as prioritizi ng economic cooperation and understanding among its members.

ASEAN's strict adherence to noninterference in its members' affairs was similarly discredited in the case of East Timor. In 1999, after the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in favor of a referendum for independence from Indonesia, pro-Jakarta militias killed tens of thousands in a wave of violence that created general anarchy in East Timor. Again, ASEAN was reluctant to take any direct action in the matter, even though there were calls for "regional intervention" within East Timor; the situation was eventually met with a UN peacekeeping force. The fact that some ASEAN states still refuse to send troops to East Timor shows the persistence of the non-interference standard. In deference to Indonesia, Malaysia, despite being the first to commit to a multinational force, subsequently wavered over sending their soldiers to East Timor and refused to take on the deputy command of the mission. The UN force had only limited participation by military personnel from the ASEAN states, with the exception of Thailand.

These two events highlight how ASEAN non-interference has allowed problems within the region to escalate. The only solutions have come from the outside, diminishing the organization's significance. There is an urgent need for ASEAN to recognize that internal problems have serious regional and global ramifications. Being unable to openly discuss or tolerate criticism hampers the formation of an adequate regional response to immediate and continuing problems. The issue of human rights in particular remains taboo among ASEAN governments, entirely at odds with the global move toward "the universality of human rights" as codified in the Vienna Protocol of 1994.

ASEAN non-intervention has a historical basis in the foundations of the organization itself. The Bangkok Declaration of 1967, which established ASEAN, introduced the notion of "equality and partnership." The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the cornerstone of all ASEAN relations, enshrines in Article 10 the right of every state to make national policy free from external subversion or coercion.

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