Thursday, August 28, 2014

Emerging 'mini-bloc' within Asean a concern

Aug 28, 2014


By Pavin Chachavalpongpun For The Straits Times

IS SOUTH-EAST Asia witnessing an emergence of a bloc comprising Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, which could pose a danger to the unity of Asean?

It all began with the coup in Thailand on May 22 which overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

After the coup, the National Council for Peace and Order, the governing body of the coup-makers, sought to lessen the effects of sanctions imposed by some Western nations. In doing so, Thailand quietly slid into the warm, embracing arms of China. But China is not the only friend in need for Thailand.

On July 4, Myanmar's supreme commander, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, paid a visit to Bangkok, making him the first top leader from Asean to meet the Thai junta after the coup. He held a discussion with coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, to strengthen ties between Thailand and Myanmar.

Disturbingly, Gen Min Aung Hlaing praised the Thai junta for "doing the right thing" in seizing power. He also compared it to his country's experience during the political upheaval that took place in Yangon in 1988, when the tatmadaw - Myanmar's army - launched deadly crackdowns against pro-democracy activists. The general is a rising star in the tatmadaw and a possible candidate in the running to be the next president of Myanmar. Amicable relations between the two countries suggest a new alliance of quasi-democracy being established in the region.

Such an alliance soon welcomed a new member, Cambodia. On May 31, Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, General Tea Banh, visited Bangkok and expressed his confidence in the leadership of the Thai military in bringing peace and order to Thailand.

The visit to Thailand by a top Cambodian delegate was politically meaningful in several ways. It could be used to repair the declining popularity of Premier Hun Sen at home by appearing to push for an improvement in bilateral relations. This follows years of conflicts in the territorial dispute over the Preah Vihear Temple and allegations of Mr Hun Sen supporting former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra and offering shelter to anti-coup "red shirts". Gradually, the political interests between Thailand and Myanmar, and Cambodia seem to be converging.

With the backing of China, the three South-east Asian states could emerge as a large black hole potentially threatening democracy and solidarity in the region. This club could become a thorn in the side of Asean's community-building efforts.

At the Asean gatherings in Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw earlier this month, one contentious issue, the South China Sea dispute, was discussed, but the 10-member grouping failed to reach an agreement with Beijing on the issue.

Non-claimant states such as Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia have maintained strategic ties with China and are reluctant to corner the Chinese
delegations into accepting Asean's terms with regard to solutions to the dispute. This compromised Asean's standpoint vis-a-vis the South China Sea conflict.

Thailand has never had a position on the South China Sea.

Cambodia, as Asean chairman in 2012, was strongly criticised for being unable to produce a customary final communique at the end of the Asean foreign ministers' meeting in Phnom Penh. Cambodia had opposed demands from other member states to mention the disputes in the document.

And now, Myanmar appears to be ambivalent about talking to China on managing the dispute within a regional framework.

Separately, the three Asean states allowed their national interests to trump those of the region. Together, it is probable the converging interests of Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia may form a mini-bloc of like-minded Asean members which could erode the solidarity of the grouping.

It was also startling that the worsening political situation in Thailand was not raised during the recent Asean meetings. Both Myanmar and Cambodia may not have wanted to pass judgment on the coup, since they themselves are politically vulnerable.

The reverse of the political trend, from democracy back to authoritarianism, could tremendously affect the building of Asean's political and security community, which has the key principle of upholding democratic values.

For several years now, Asean has attempted to prove its seriousness as a leading regional organisation. One area of focus has been to promote democracy and respect for human rights.

This explains why Asean broke its non-interference tradition in setting up a human rights body, known as the Asean Inter-governmental Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), to deal with such sensitive matters.

But the AIHRC has experienced several setbacks, and is being depicted as a toothless agency in handling difficult issues such as the disruption of democracy and the violation of human rights. The emergence of the Thailand-Myanmar-Cambodia bloc could further constrain the work of the AIHRC.

Asean is now approaching the final phase of its community-building and it is keen to showcase its success. But the receding of democracy in Thailand could shatter Asean's dream of guaranteeing a stable and peaceful political and security community.

The delay, should it occur, will also jeopardise Asean's relations with its dialogue partners, who constantly demand a more democratic South-east Asian region.

The writer is associate professor at Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies and associate fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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