Southeast Asian nations dance to different tunes

ASEAN's weekend gathering may highlight differences between haves and have nots.

Back in the cold war, Southeast Asia broke down into two clear camps for US policymakers: Communist "problems" like Vietnam and China, and anticommunist friends like the Philippines and Indonesia, which were grouped in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Aid was lavished on the friends, while the problems were isolated. Mutual fear of communism kept relations within ASEAN (Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines) and between ASEAN and the US extremely cordial. Southeast Asia was a fairly homogenous land of steady economic development.

But as ASEAN's leaders gather in Singapore this week for their annual meeting, they do so against a backdrop of discord and diverging interests. Some countries are emerging quickly from financial crises, while others, most crucially Indonesia, are battling political turmoil and disintegration. ASEAN as a political bloc is rapidly losing meaning.

"ASEAN's image has taken a real bashing in the past few years," says John Funston, a senior fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. "Domestic politics are having a bigger impact on the way foreign policy is conducted."

That is making the region much less cohesive. Malaysia and Singapore are jousting over free trade. Thailand would like ASEAN's tradition of "non-interference" dropped for a more frank dialogue between nations, while newer ASEAN members like Vietnam are opposed to any change that would expose them to more foreign criticism.

Though the loss of the unifying theme of the cold war is what started the process, the different economic and political trajectories of ASEAN's members in the wake of the economic crisis that swept the region in 1997 are increasing the divide. That year was also when Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and Laos were added to ASEAN. The addition of Burma, in particular, opened the group up to severe international pressure.

The region is increasingly becoming a place of haves and have nots, as countries like Malaysia and the modern city state of Singapore recover strongly, while the economies of the two largest of ASEAN's founder states - Indonesia and the Philippines - struggle and fall behind.

Most commentators blame political uncertainty in both countries for their problems. In the Philippines, President Joseph Estrada has been impeached over allegations he accepted bribes, and gridlock has set in. His presidency may not survive December.

In Indonesia, President Abdurrahman Wahid is struggling to solidify democratic rule after more than 40 years of authoritarianism as growing independence movements - particularly in the westernmost province of Aceh and in the easternmost province of Irian Jaya - and increasing lawlessness across the country are frightening regional neighbors.

More than 1 million people have been displaced by Indonesia's conflicts, and crime is becoming a major concern, not only domestically but for trading partners like Singapore and Malaysia just across the Malacca Straits. The strategic sea lane has been hit by 32 pirate attacks this year - compared to none in 1999.

But tackling that problem will not be on ASEAN's agenda this week. Nor will the Indonesian forest fires that have created debilitating cross-border smog in recent years. Instead, the leaders will focus on the least contentious trade issues.

When ASEAN was created 33 years ago, most of its governments were authoritarian. Their leaders agreed that no criticism would be allowed, arguing that to do so would be a violation of "Asian values."

But in recent years, ASEAN's more democratic members, like Thailand, have argued that this tradition undermines ASEAN's potential to solve regional problems. They have pushed for more flexible engagement with one another. In what was termed a compromise earlier this year, ASEAN agreed to pursue "enhanced interaction" with one another. "Hardly a radical breakthrough,'' says a diplomat who tracks the group.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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