Where is the ASEAN Community?

By Eva Kusuma Sundari
Indonesian Member of Parliament

Over the past year, we have seen religious and ethnic conflicts unleashed yet again in our region. In Myanmar, Buddhists and Muslims have been pit against one another; hundreds of lives have been lost and tens of thousands more displaced as homes and businesses were burned to the ground and tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya families were evicted from their homes by violent mobs.

Myanmar claims the “Rohingya problem” to be an internal matter — likely, and unfortunately, it is the same stand most governments of any of ASEAN’s 10 member states would take. But we know this not to be accurate — while it may have its root causes in western Myanmar, the effects of this conflict are felt regionally and are of relevance even further afield. As such, we must also look wider to find solutions.

The situation is admittedly complicated, and there are myriad economic, social, historical and other factors at play that have led to this deep chasm between communities. One of the more serious considerations is that of religious fundamentalism. Hate speech and vitriol that instigates violence against a particular ethnic or religious group cannot hide behind the tenets of free speech.

As we have seen in other countries, national governments cannot always be seen to be neutral or fulfilling their role to protect minorities and the vulnerable.

Undoubtedly, this is of concern to us all. As an elected parliamentarian, I feel it is a duty to push for ASEAN to assume a key role in solving this crisis and work to prevent others like it. For in fact, almost all ASEAN member states are facing ethnic and religious tensions and divides.

Like a microcosm of the ASEAN grouping itself, our nations are made up of equally diverse communities. If religious extremism and persecution is left to fester, there is a strong likelihood that we will see similar conflicts erupting between communities all across Southeast Asia.

Is this not an issue that we, as a region, can and must tackle together? Is it not in the interest of Myanmar also that this conflict is resolved?

This month, ASEAN will mark its 46th year of existence. We have come a long way since the regional grouping was established all those years ago as an instrument for regional political integration, security and peace — but we remain far short of where we need to be if it is going represent the people of this region rather than just be a club for the region’s most powerful political and business interests.

If it does not change, as the region has, then the ASEAN experiment will ultimately be seen as a failure. It must wake up from its archaic top-down approach and begin building strong institutions and mechanisms with real weight and backed by binding charters.

Because of our region’s wide variety of languages, religions and cultures, it may seem futile to seek to establish some form of unified ideas, principles or rules which can guide us as a union — but that is exactly what is needed. Our national governments are often unwilling, or unable, to tackle the most challenging issues, and the more marginalized in society find themselves with nowhere to turn for recourse.

This is a dangerous path. With the so-called ASEAN Economic Community around the corner, it is time that the other key elements of a regional union were supported and built upon. Rather than simply being a force for economic and political deal-making, ASEAN should and could, be a force for developing more equitable and stable societies. For this to happen, ASEAN needs more clout, it needs to become a body that the citizens of this region can identify with.

If ASEAN wants to establish a more integrated and effective regional community, it needs to also understand the role it needs to play in solving religious and racial issues, and other significant concerns facing us all. Like the sound of a drum that has been beaten for decades, we must again say that the “policy of non-interference” is a hindrance to the political and economic development of this region; the myth of “Asian values” is nothing more than an excuse for human rights violations and curbing individual rights and freedoms.

As deeper economic integration takes hold, we will witness a vast increase in the movement of people and an explosion of wider interaction between the culturally disparate citizens of this region. We must not underestimate the need for a strong regional voice and mechanisms to support this change and deal with the many problems it could engender.

As in the instances of religious conflict, ASEAN should see that its role, as the engine for regional integration, should be one of protector of the vulnerable and mediator of conflicts large and small. It needs the authority and backing of its constituent parts to grow into a genuine force for social, economic and political progress.

Rather than being a mirror of our own national failures, ASEAN, as an institution, must provide the space for which the people and leaders of this region can look to rise above bitter and complex national conflicts and tensions, where the bar of ambition is set high.

The ASEAN Economic Community must be exactly that, a community — with shared visions, ideas and responsibilities.

The writer is a founding member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a House of Representatives member from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and member of the House’s Commission III overseeing law and human rights.

This article was originally published in the Jakarta Post.

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