Could Southeast Asians soon be travelling freely across neighbouring borders at no expense in a burgeoning regional community?
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa hopes so. The current chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, took his campaign for a free ASEAN visa by 2015 to a meeting of journalists in Bali last month.
Conceding that the implementation of a European Union style opening of borders will face some significant hurdles, Natalegawa nevertheless pushed member states to trial the scheme for delegates attending the upcoming ASEAN summit in Bali beginning on November 12.
“As chairman of ASEAN, we introduced the concept of an ASEAN visa. Of course, we still have a different range of ideas. Some countries are not yet comfortable among all of us,” he said at last month’s 2011 Journalist’s Visiting Program.
“We have to move step-by-step; it does not have to immediately be 10 countries.”
ASEAN member states have had difficulty forming a strong sense of regional identity in the past, hindered by a range of bilateral tensions such as the long-running border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand.
But Natalegawa confirmed his commitment to see that implementation of a free regional visa did not lag behind and was “actually carried out”.
Carlyle Thayer, a professor of politics at the University of New South Wales, said details about how long the visas would last, what exactly they permitted and how internal security issues would be dealt with, would lead to some divergent views.
But he said there appeared to be political will at the elite level of ASEAN member state governments to bring about a regional community.
“It’s a small step in the major project of creating an ASEAN community by 2015,” he said, adding that the task was made harder by the fact that ASEAN does not share the same sense of regional identity that exists between countries in Europe that remain nationalist in their own right.
Cambodian Minister of Tourism Thong Khon welcomed the idea, but said it had to be backed with increased transportation connectivity.
“I think if we have free visas, then we will gain a greater number of tourists,” he said, adding this needed to be backed up with direct flights to Cambodia from countries such as Indonesia and Brunei.
At the ASEAN Senior Law Official Meeting at Phnom Penh’s Cambodiana Hotel yesterday, Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana raised a spate of legal issues that would be tackled during the conference before focusing his attentions on the issue of regional harmonization.
“I strongly believe that in the spirit of solidarity, mutual understanding, friendship and consensus, the 14th ASLOM will, as usual make its valuable contribution to the common cause of ASEAN community,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DAVID BOYLE