ASEAN Issues

ASEAN is facing several issues at present but I would like to highlight on 3 for this article: human rights; territorial disputes; and the recent Indonesian haze.

Human rights violations in Myanmar and the Philippines (PH) drug campaign allegedly resulting in EJK have hogged international headlines for some time now.  According to Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, “Human rights and fundamental freedoms are trampled on every day in the ASEAN region. We are seeing increasing attacks on human rights defenders, often justified by newly-passed repressive laws, and the continued persecution of minority groups and marginalized peoples who are unable to defend themselves”. 

In a 2018 report (https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/three-issues-that-could-jeopardise-asean-unity-in-2018), more than 650,000 minority Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar, amid violence and a military campaign in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. While ASEAN wants to put a stop to this violence, it will be difficult for her to find a common position on the issue, said experts.

In November 2019, civil society groups conveyed their concern about human rights violations in a meeting between ASEAN Foreign Ministers and delegates of ASEAN civil society groups representing ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum. The group sought for bolder action on the commitments made by ASEAN Member States (AMS) over the last years concerning human rights, democracy, and development which are embraced by the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

In our own backyard, Duterte and Robredo are trading barbs on the drug war of President Duterte resulting in alleged human rights violations. The latest drama was the appointment of Robredo as drug war czar which was immediately rescinded the moment she started doing her job.

My take: ASEAN must deliver on her pronouncements to promote and protect human rights of her peoples. It’s a fundamental tenet of democracy. If she cannot deliver, she will lose credibility not only with her own people, but with the international community as well – which is already happening.

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Tensions have been felt between AMS – PH, Brunei, Malaysia, Viet Nam – and China, with the latter claiming the whole South China Sea (SCS) through the 9-dash line. Unfortunately, the Code of Conduct (COC) to manage maritime and territorial disputes in the SCS is expected to take more than 3 years to complete, said L. Zhou in her article “What is the South China Sea Code of Conduct, and Why does it Matter? (https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2105190/what-south-china-sea-code-conduct-and-why-does-it”). 

What is the COC in SCS? Zhou said it is a set of rules outlining the norms, rules, and responsibilities of, or proper practices for, an individual, party or organization. ASEAN and China agreed to set up a COC in SCS.

For Beijing though, a COC could be a non-binding instrument that can be leveraged to improve regional trust, rather than resolve overlapping claims while AMS may think differently, said Zhang Mingliang, an expert from Jinan University in Guangzhou.

If ASEAN and China hold different views about the COC, there is no guarantee that it will solve the territorial disputes. However, if the intent is just to manage a peaceful and constructive coexistence between claimant states, it will likely work like Viet Nam on the Southwest Cay and PH on the Northeast Cay, respectively, in Spratly Islands. According to a reliable source, relationship between the 2 AMS’s navies is an excellent example of peaceful and constructive coexistence between 2 claimant states. Credit goes to the “ASEAN Way” of managing potential flashpoints.

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Massive forest fires and haze hit Indonesia from July-October 2019. Described as a Non-Traditional Security (NTS) threat, transboundary haze from these fires, reached Singapore, Malaysia, and even PH in August-September 2019.

According to Greenpeace (https://www.greenpeace.org/southeastasia/press/3221/asean-haze-2019-the-battle-of-liability/), the full human impact in Indonesia is yet to be officially counted this year but the following were its effects: respiratory illness suffered by an estimated 1 million Indonesians; curtailment of ordinary school activities; disrupted flights; and more than 9,000 security and emergency workers diverted to fight the fires. 

Meanwhile, in PH, the public was advised to wear masks whenever leaving their houses since the haze was expected to cause health hazards such as cough, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses. Haze also frequently affects eye health. I should know. My daughter’s and my eyes were irritated by the haze when it hit General Santos City. Moreover, air quality in Singapore and Malaysia worsened and were categorized as unhealthy and hazardous.

My take: ASEAN cannot always invoke non-interference in cases such as transboundary NTS. It smacks of “turf protection” and “disloyalty” to affected ASEAN peoples. It’s about time we put teeth to the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. No more lip service.

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For comments, you may reach the writer at [email protected]./PN

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