ASEAN – Distant Dream of Unity

Kuala Lumpur — Small Airbus-319 of Cebu Pacific Airlines departs Manila for almost 4 hours long journey to Jakarta, but the service started only recently and it is not flying every day. Capitals of two enormous Southeast Asian countries are still effectively disconnected, Cebu Pacific -Philippine no frills airline – offers the only direct link. Indonesian flag carrier – Garuda – doesn’t fly to Manila or anywhere else in Philippines while Philippine Airlines fly to Jakarta only once a day, through Singapore.

There are no direct flights between Hanoi and Jakarta or between Hanoi and Manila. One cannot fly directly between Jakarta and Vientiane (capital of Laos), Phnom Penh and Rangoon.

But Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which loosely links ten countries in the region (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam), has some truly lofty goals and ambitions, including economic integration, passport-free travel for its citizens, integrated transportation system, even common currency. Optimists are aiming at the nothing short of Southeast Asian version of European Union.

That would be almost impossible to achieve: all 10 countries are divided by thin airline network, but also by bitter history and mistrust. Common inhabitants of Southeast Asia have hardly any knowledge about life and culture in their neighboring nations. Even the value of trade between ASEAN countries is insignificant, with exception of its value between 9 members and Singapore.

20th Century history can be considered the main reason for division. Vietnam fighting bitter and bloody war against the United States had to suffer from attacks coming from Thai and Philippine soil. During the Second World War, Thailand allowed Japanese troops to use its territory and later participated in savage and indiscriminate bombing of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam during what is known in former Indochina as “American War”. Its bases and airfields were used as the origins for hundreds of thousands of deadly US sorties which took lives of millions of innocent men, women and children north and east of Thai borders.

Sukarno’s Indonesia had been bomber by the US from the bases in Philippines. Malaysia, even Singapore suffered from Indonesian policy of “confrontation”.

But history is not the only dividing factor. Predominately Muslim nations, both Malaysia and Indonesia feel alarmed by the presence of the US military personnel in Jolo (Sulu) in Southern Philippines, where they are engaged fighting in what the US often describes as “the second front of war against terrorism.” Jolo is just a boat ride away from Malaysian state of Serawak as well as from Indonesian Kalimantan. Breaking its own laws, Philippine government is now allowing US troops to participate in combat operations again Muslim insurgents, in exchange for “humanitarian assistance”.

Suffering from attacks coming from the Muslim separatists in the south of the country, Thailand is accusing neighboring Malaysia of supporting insurgency, while Malaysia claims that Muslim minority in Thailand is being discriminated against.

Malaysia and Singapore are locked in a number of minor disputes, while there are serious border disputes between Indonesia and Malaysia that often lead to mobilization of two navies; situation which threatens to escalate to war.

Singapore is stubbornly refusing to sign extradition treaty with Indonesia, which means that some of the most corrupt Indonesian citizens who robbed the country of hundreds of millions of dollars can enjoy, until now, luxurious and safe life while being holed in posh condominiums of the city-state.

Thailand’s brutal treatment of Burmese refugees, particularly the forced deportation of HIV positive illegal migrants to their certain death in junta sponsored camps, received international condemnation, but Thailand doesn’t treat well even its own minorities and the same that can be said about almost every member of ASEAN.

And the list can go on: not a sound blueprint for harmonious coexistence for the part of the world, which is dreaming about integration and unity. Two countries with observer status – East Timor and Papua New Guinea (PNG) – would hardly help to simplify the matters would they be allowed to join ASEAN permanently. East Timor lost roughly one third of its population during the brutal Indonesian occupation, while PNG is sharing the same islands and same culture (s) with Papua, which so far lost more than 100 thousand people in its strife for independence from Jakarta.

But who is really dreaming about integration? It seems that common people living in Southeast Asia know close to nothing about each other, with the exceptions of citizens of Singapore and arguably Malaysia, as well as those who are living in the border areas.

A dentist in Bangkok working for international clinic recently commented that it would be more practical to get dental treatment in Japan if I am based in Jakarta, since Tokyo is “so much closer to Jakarta than Bangkok”. A middle class man in Manila was actually shocked to learn that Jakarta is not in Europe. There is no knowledge in Indonesia about Vietnam, Burma or Laos and very little about Philippines. Cambodians tend to know much more about the US, China and Europe (due to the UN peace missions in the country) than about Malaysia, Indonesia or Burma.

Travel between most of ASEAN countries is not encouraged. Indonesian citizens visiting Bangkok or even neighboring Singapore have to pay departure tax and so called fiscal (basically a tax for leaving their country: 1 million Rp, equivalent of 110 dollars when they travel by air, half of that if they take a ferry) and Philippines demand higher departure tax from their own citizens than that which has to be paid by the foreigners. Short weekend trips and “know your neighbors” travel adventures are almost unthinkable for the great majority of ASEAN citizens who still try to survive on meager incomes.

Cultural exchange is almost non-existent. Indonesia and Philippines live on almost exclusive diet of Western and local pop, as well as cheap soap operas imported from as far as Latin America. Hipsters in Hanoi are closely following music, films and fashion from Korea and Japan, not from Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta. Literature revered in Manila never makes it to the bookstores of Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta and vice versa. The same can be said about the music and film. The only cultural exchange is happening between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore due to the closeness of Malay and Indonesian languages, but even there it involves almost exclusively pop music.

Tiny and extremely wealthy Singapore is the only exception. In fact the best music productions from the region are performed in its concert halls; the greatest Indonesian and Vietnamese painters exhibit and sell in its galleries. Two major wings of Museums of Asian Civilization are trying to compile artistic excellence from the entire region. But Singapore is an exception and due to its size and wealth, an exception that proves the rule.

On the drawing boards of the planners there are wide highways and railway links, which will one day, connect entire Southeast Asia, from Singapore to Thailand and then include Cambodia and Vietnam. Entire region with the population of roughly three quarters of billion would then live in harmony, sharing what political leaders of Malaysia and Singapore used to define as “Asian Values”.

But reality is far from that: it is bleak. Nations of ASEAN are as divided as ever. Social grievances are increasing and many of the countries are experiencing rapid nose-dive in quality of education. More then half of the people of ASEAN citizens live on lesser than 2 dollars a day. Nationalism and religions are still playing decisive role, often blocking the way to progress.

Thailand recently lived through a military coup and it is still facing separatist insurgency. Philippines are in a constant state of low-key civil war in its restless south while dozens of its journalists, activists and opposition figures are being murdered annually. Indonesia is periodically suffering from hundreds of man made and natural disasters that kill thousands of people through corruption, mismanagement, poor planning and poverty. Malaysian ruling party recently trumpeted to the world that it is ready to spill the blood to defend rights of native Malay majority and those of Islam. Situation in Myanmar is nothing short of continuous nightmare. Most of the problems are specific to each particular country, but some of the most severe ones are regional.

Instead of dreaming big dreams of political integration and free trade which in this part of the world means mostly incentives for big businesses, ASEAN should preoccupy itself with more “modest” but much more urgent issues like poverty and education. It should also address the history and begin building bridges between its people. And above all, it should put lives of its common people above business and commercial interests. Common currency and one single flag can come much later.

ANDRE VLTCHEK: writer, filmmaker and journalist, editorial director of Asiana Press Agency (APA) (www.asiana-press-agency.com) and co-founder of Mainstay Press (www.mainstaypress.org) – publishing house for progressive political fiction. He lives and works in Southeast Asia and South Pacific and can be contacted at: [email protected]

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