Instability in Thailand that led to cancellation of the ASEAN Summit means regional leaders were unable to talk on how to fend off economic turmoil
Prime Minister Hun Sen leaves U-Tapao military airport in Thailand on Saturday. Cambodia’s leader returned to Phnom Penh early after the planned summit in Pattaya was cancelled due to protests.
THE dramatic cancellation of an Asian summit after rampaging Thai protesters stormed the venue has set back a regional effort to tackle the global downturn, analysts said.
ASEAN was to have hosted two days of talks with the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea and other allies in the biggest international gathering since the G20 summit in London this month.
But the 16-nation meeting was aborted Saturday when anti-government protesters broke through cordons of troops and riot police - forcing presidents, prime ministers and a monarch to be evacuated by helicopter from the rooftop.
"The opportunity to work out collective measures has been set back. It is a setback to Asia's contribution to the global economic recovery," said former ASEAN chief Rodolfo Severino.
"I hope they can meet soon and work it out because Asia has a lot of potential to help in the global economic recovery," said Severino, head of the Singapore-based ASEAN Studies Centre.
The meeting was to have discussed ways to further open up markets, ditch protectionist measures and flesh out the details of a US$120 billion crisis fund for countries under financial stress.
"It is not easy to gather leaders of this magnitude, including the leaders of China, Japan and India. It would have been an opportunity for Asia to let its voice be heard," said an unnamed Southeast Asian diplomat.
The scrapping of the summit shows how the 10-nation ASEAN has become a hostage to the political dramas of its members - a diverse group of democracies, a military dictatorship, a monarchy and communist states, analysts said.
Asia has a lot of potential to help in the global economic recovery.
"The main effect is on perceptions of Thailand, [but] indirectly ASEAN's image is affected," said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia specialist at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
"That all are safe and unharmed is good, but it points to one of the underlying challenges for the organisation - how to deal with the dynamics within countries in the region," she said.
While military-ruled Myanmar's iron grip and human rights abuses have been perennial thorns in ASEAN's side, political instability in democracies such as Thailand and the Philippines have also hurt the regional grouping.
"Thailand's instability is a persistent blow for democracy in the region. It used to be a model, and now it is so polarised that it cannot even hold a regional meeting in a remote stronghold for the governing party," said Welsh.
"The protests feed governments who opt for more draconian measures to address crowds, rather than dialogue and legitimacy through elections."
Welsh said that until ASEAN's five core members - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand - can serve as an "anchor" for the bloc, "nothing substantial will get done".
It was not the first time summits have become victims of domestic problems within ASEAN, which also groups oil-rich Brunei and developing nations Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
The Philippines postponed its hosting of the annual ASEAN summit from December 2006 to the following month, publicly citing an approaching typhoon but with speculation rife that it was due to a security threat.
In July 2007, Myanmar passed its chance to host the summit and related meetings after the United States threatened to boycott ASEAN gatherings if it took up the group's revolving leadership.
Seah Chiang Nee, a Singapore-based veteran political commentator, said any impact on ASEAN's international reputation would be temporary.
"The big impact will be on Thailand. I don't see how they can live down this reputation of publicly being disgraced in the eyes of the world," he said. AFP