Guest Column

EU's Nobel Prize—Lessons for Asean

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 22 October 2012

For Asean supporters, a Nobel Peace Prize for the organization is just a matter of time. After all, two Southeast Asians—Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and Jose Ramos Horta—have already received prizes years ago. Burma first joined the bloc in 1997.

Horta, the former president and prime minister of East Timor, has been pushing for his country’s membership since 2002. These two leaders will likely have a certain level of influence in all areas of Asean policy in years to come.

When the Norwegian Peace Committee awarded the Peace Prize to the European Union, it cited its past record in promoting peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights. The organization cemented relations between former enemies and engaged them to promote peace and economic prosperity.

The EU has also successfully enlarged its organization to include former communist countries in Eastern Europe—increasing the democratic space and respect for human rights throughout the continent. If that is the main measure of Peace Prize candidature, there is no reason why Asean should not make the shortlist. Of course, it would take years, if not decades, to produce tangible results on peace-making, national reconciliation, democracy and human rights.

Nevertheless, Asean is definitely moving in this direction. After the Asean Charter was adopted at the end of 2008, member countries have in general become more democratic and respect for human rights has become a stated goal.

After all, they have to comply with the rules and guidelines contained in the charter and various blueprints, which is comprised of international standards deemed necessary ingredients of functioning democracies throughout the world.

The most notable case is Burma’s fascinating political and economic transformation over the past 18 months. Other older democracies such as the Philippines and Thailand have also consolidated political stability, albeit at snail’s pace, but nonetheless seeing undeniable progress.

It is interesting that the committee did not mention EU economic cooperation, especially current efforts to resolve the troubled Eurozone financial arrangement or how leading members such as Germany and France are trying to cope with the burgeoning problem.

Obviously, Asean’s record on economic growth and cooperation could easily be highlighted and praised in comparison with other regional groupings such as the African Union or South Asia Regional Cooperation.

In fact, one could also argue that Asean should be awarded the Nobel Prize in the field of economics because the grouping has fared much better in this realm than others fields of cooperation. So far, it has been able to weather the current global financial storm rather well, especially compared with the crisis of 2008.

Asian countries suffered first and much earlier when the economic turbulence hit in 1997. Their reactions could be a case study of how countries in the region got together to end their economic vulnerability.

Now, the so-called Chiang Mai Initiatives, which have now been transformed into the Multilateral Chiang Mai Initiatives, have become a symbol of regional resilience and efforts to promote financial health in the region. East Asian countries have since then promoted this financial surveillance mechanism as a good example of regional endeavors to increase financial stability—something the EU could emulate.

Although Asean has a good track record on economic cooperation, of late quite a few member countries have become more nationalistic. They realize that sometimes giving up national interests for the collective good can be problematic due to the domestic uproar caused.

Even core Asean members like the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand are reluctant to go all the way to accelerate bloc economic integration. No wonder, the Asean community, especially the economic aspect, will be further delayed for another 364 days—postponed from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2015.

It has taken some time for Asean members to get to grips with the lukewarm commitment to free trade areas. New members have not fared better than the old guard even though they have been given an additional grace period. They have to make progress on both tariff and non-tariff reduction measures such as trade facilitation and customs standards.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Asean moved quickly to include Vietnam, its number one enemy during the Cold War. Initially, skepticism was rife that Vietnam would not be able to assimilate into the pro-West grouping.

However, after 17 years, Vietnam has turned into a main driving force in Asean. Other new members such as Cambodia, Laos and Burma have in their own way contributed to the overall bloc profile. But it has been Burma, the member that most often faced condemnation, which has stolen the show since it embarked on simultaneous economic and political reforms since March 2010.

Before Burma began dominating the news headlines, it was Cambodia that was the United Nations’ poster child which inspired emerging democracies. After more than three decades of war and conflict, peace was restored in Cambodia and the country of 13 million people turned into one of the rapid economic growth stories in the world.

From 1992 onwards, Cambodia was portrayed as a former Indochinese nation that has successfully incorporated democracy alongside its previous communist inclinations with fully-fledged UN support. It was first amongst new Asean members to allow a free press and establishment of nongovernmental organizations.

The country has all the trappings of a democracy. But of late, criticism come thick and fast regarding human rights violations and non-democratic governance—a huge contrast with the situation of the 1990s.

On balance, there are three particular areas that Asean can expect some, albeit slow, progress. Firstly, the grouping will set up the Asean Institute of Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR) next month, which will serve as a think-tank for the bloc and its Jakarta-based secretariat.

In the future, when a level of comfort is reached, the AIPR can help Asean carefully ponder sensitive issues involving inter-Asean conflicts. This is a new area that has been implemented as outlined by the Asean Charter.

In addition, Asean leaders will issue the Asean Declaration of Human Rights after a year of heated debate between group officials, members of AICHR (Asean Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights) and Asean-based civil society groups.

The current draft, which was not supported by the latter, will be adopted at the summit. Meanwhile, the non-governmental sectors are working on their own version called the People’s Declaration of Asean Human Rights to counter the Asean draft, which has been described as “lower than international standards.”

Finally, to enforce discipline and full compliance among members, especially on issues relating to peace building and conflict resolution as well as others, the role of the Asean secretary-general and his secretariat must be empowered, reorganized and further strengthened. There should be a high-level taskforce to work on this issue across the three pillars in the near future.