Political dilemmas, however, undermine ‘unity in diversity’.
REGIONAL leaders gathered for the 16th ASEAN summit in Hanoi on Thursday, focusing on areas of agreement rather than the pressing political challenges that threaten to thwart the bloc’s ambitions.
According to draft documents, ASEAN leaders are set to adopt declarations today concerning climate change and economic recovery. The climate change document calls on ASEAN members “to advance a comprehensive legally binding global agreement on climate change” and advocate increased climate adaptability funding from the developed world.
The economic document, meanwhile, states that ASEAN countries will “maintain monetary and fiscal support while preparing for orderly unwinding of expansionary policies” as they work to address the development gap among member states in the long term.
Delegates also established a protocol for “dispute settlement mechanisms” whereby ASEAN states in conflict with one another could turn to a third party for arbitration. It is not clear whether such a mechanism could be used to resolve the ongoing border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, as Thailand has consistently rejected international intervention in the conflict and the settlement may require the consent of both parties to a dispute.
But on a day when Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung spoke of ASEAN’s “unity in diversity”, the varied political dilemmas facing its members came into sharp focus.
With a state of emergency declared in Bangkok, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was forced to cancel his trip to Hanoi, as members of the antigovernment Red Shirt movement flooded Bangkok’s main shopping district and stepped up their calls for new elections.
Nagging concerns about the repressive military junta in Myanmar, meanwhile, were given new urgency by last month’s announcement that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will not be allowed to take part in elections scheduled for late 2010, the country’s first in two decades.
Speaking on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit on Thursday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong said the protests in Thailand were a matter best handled by the Thai government, and denied that Cambodia had any stake in the outcome.
“The problem between the Red Shirts and the Yellow is the internal affair of Thailand. We have nothing to do [with it], but we wish just the good things for Thailand,” Hor Namhong said, denying that there was any disjunction between Cambodia’s stated neutrality in Thailand’s political crisis and its appointment of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as an economic adviser.
“We’re dealing only with economic affairs in Cambodia. You have observed that during his stay in Cambodia twice, [Thaksin] has never said a word concerning the Thai situation,” Hor Namhong said.
Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya answered testily when asked whether the unrest in Bangkok had been addressed during a meeting of ASEAN heads of state. “You keep on asking the same question – no,” he said.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the matter had not been addressed during a Wednesday meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers either, though he added that “obviously all of ASEAN ... is following closely developments in Thailand”.
“We fully respect that these are all obviously internal developments. At the same time, we all wish very much to see the situation stabilise in Thailand,” Natalegawa said, adding that “all regional integration efforts ... must be anchored by national stability”.
Along with the Philippines, Indonesia has been publicly critical of the election restrictions in Myanmar, a stance Natalegawa reiterated on Thursday.
“Indonesia has been consistent in raising the issue, not because of any ill will, but ... as a family member in ASEAN,” Natalegawa said, calling for elections to take place “in a democratic way, in a transparent way, in a participatory way”.
It was not clear on Thursday, however, whether ASEAN would address the issue collectively. Hor Namhong said Myanmar was not discussed in meetings, though he added Cambodia’s voice to the chorus calling for credible elections in Myanmar.
“Cambodia – as with most of the ASEAN community – we wish to see the election in Myanmar and pursue transparency for all parties in Myanmar,” he said.
ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan acknowledged the political uncertainty facing the bloc, but said it was a typical problem that would not prevent ASEAN countries from achieving their stated goal of European Union-style political and economic cooperation by 2015.
“It’s a yo-yo – when one member state is stable and secure, others are in a state of instability, but that has been the experience of ASEAN for the last 42 years,” he said. “I think we will survive.”