The ongoing refugee crisis in south-east Asia has exposed serious fault lines in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations barely six months out from the creation of its Economic Community.

The group’s motto is “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”, but right now it is failing on all three counts.

Formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines — and since been joined by Vietnam, Cambodia, Brunei, Laos and Myanmar — ASEAN has been a slow-burning project that aims to emulate, if not really mimic, the European Union. It is home to more than 600 million people, together making up the world’s seventh-largest economy; certainly larger than Australia’s and the United Kingdom’s, and one growing at between about 2% and 7%, depending on which country is in the frame.

But the countries include a vast number of ethnics groups — upwards of 200, according to some estimates — and most are dominated by one of the world’s three biggest religions: Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. As well, ASEAN nations are at dramatically different stages of development: from first-world Singapore, which has one of the highest GDP per capita figures in the world, to impoverished Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, which remain on the UN’s Least Developed Country list.

All power to Thailand for (finally) pulling together its fellow member nations, along with seven other regional countries — including Australia, as well as a bunch of observers such as the US, Japan, Switzerland and the UN — for the May 29 summit meeting organised to address the problem.

But while everyone — including Myanmar, whose government’s appalling policies against the Muslim Rohingya minority are the basis for the refugee problem — showed up, there was precious little agreement about what to do.

The refugee crisis — Asia’s biggest since the Vietnam War — is the second major test that ASEAN has failed, at least so far, in the past few years.

Three years ago, when China stepped up its efforts to throw its weight around in the South China Sea, the ASEAN nations — six of which are in dispute with China over maritime territory — attempted to speak with one voice.  The effort was thwarted by Cambodia, which was president of the group at the time and has long been (along with Myanmar) firmly in China’s economic sphere of influence.

This inability to speak with a single voice on the region’s emerging major issues regarding China’s strategic influence is a real problem and one compounded by the more unseen battle for economic influence raging between China and Japan (and the latter’s ally, the US). The US or Japan is the largest foreign investor for many major nations in the region’s economic powerhouses: Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The South China Sea was never going to disappear and, at this year’s ASEAN summit in Malaysia, the region’s fault lines on the issue were once again exposed.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario said that China was “poised to consolidate de facto control of the South China Sea”.

But Anifah Aman, Foreign Minister for Malaysia, which holds the revolving chair of the group this year, countered with this:

“It will be much appreciated if China can stop work and sit down with ASEAN member states … The Philippines is free to issue any statement they wish, and I respect them for that. But for us, ASEAN’s stand is that we want to engage with China.”

Confused? So is ASEAN.

This underscores the fact that, as ASEAN moves to become more cohesive, there are forces acting to both physically and metaphorically tear it asunder. These forces are as strong as they come: economic, security and, in a region where people remain firmly tethered to deep-seated beliefs, religion (perhaps the strongest of them all).

Sectarian violence between Muslims and both Buddhists (in Malaysia) and Christians (in the Philippines and Indonesia) is rising, along with concerns about Islamification in Brunei on the island of Borneo, and there is now also sharia law in parts of Malaysia.

Then there are the surprising number of ongoing and running civil wars in the region. The most public are those in Myanmar. The nation’s often domestically reviled military — the Tatmadaw — has been fighting on half-a-dozen major fronts for some decades. A concerted effort to bring nationwide peace has led to a range of ceasefires, some of which are regularly broken, for instance, in Shan State. But a sizable full-scale war continues in Kachin State, a conflict that this week passed its fourth anniversary.

Then there’s Thailand’s dirty little secret: the secessionist war by three of its southern-most provinces, where Muslims are a majority, which has resulted in more than 5000 people being killed, many of them innocent bystanders, including many children.

The Philippines has a similar problem in its south, with Muslim insurgents based around its second-largest island, Mindanao.

Solving these conflicts and other smaller insurgencies and flare-ups is doubtless not helped by the fact that 80% of ASEAN nations are ruled by authoritarian governments: Brunei’s absolute monarchy; decades-old communist regimes in Vietnam and Laos; the effective dictatorship of Prime Minister Hun Sen in Cambodia; Singapore’s effective one-party state (though it seems benign, at times); Myanmar’s military-backed government; Thailand’s military junta; and Malaysia, while nominally democratic, has been ruled generally ruthlessly by the Barisan Nasional in various forms and coalitions since 1957, with the recent jailing of former deputy prime minister-turned-opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim giving lie to the country’s pluralistic pretences.

This leaves the Philippines and Indonesia — two former dictatorships — as the most functional democracies in the region. With such regimes comes widespread press censorship and repression, which is not limited to these countries, as the sickening massacre of 34 journalists in 2009 in the southern Philippines will attest.

If nations cannot solve their own internal divisions, or at lest map out a path to a more peaceful future, how can they be expected to help their neighbours in any meaningful way?

All of this gives a snapshot of the enormity of the task ahead of ASEAN as it attempts to launch its Economic Community on December 31 this year. None of this is to say that ASEAN is not an admirable and very worthwhile idea. It’s an economically vibrant region, one that is critical to Australia’s future. Collectively, the nations make Australia’s number four trading partner, and the fulcrum that has the potential to provide the strategic balance necessary to long-term stability in the Asia Pacific as tensions escalate between, to put it simplistically, China and the US/Japan.

But as ASEAN’s limp and discordant response to the very real refugee crisis has exposed that plain truth that here is an awful lot of talk and precious little collective vision, identity or action — and a helluva lot of work to do.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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