The content in this page ("Thailand's role in the ASEAN Region: Prospects and Challenges in advancing a caring and sharing community" by Achara Ashayagachat) is not produced by Prachatai staff. Prachatai merely provides a platform, and the opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of Prachatai.

Thailand's role in the ASEAN Region: Prospects and Challenges in advancing a caring and sharing community

Bangkok Post reporter Achara Ashayagachat focuses on how Thailand has been playing a role in Asean in the past years, particularly during the 2008/9 chairmanship, and how it is perceived domestically, regionally and internationally.  And she challenges the readiness of Asean to become a single Community.
 

I

 
Since 2006, Thailand has lived through a military coup after a 15-year hiatus, five prime ministers (including the notorious corrupted Thaksin and the charming but powerless Abhisit), and widespread civil unrests. 
 
The peak crises began when yellow-shirted protesters under the banner of People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) occupied two international airports in November last year and the red-shirted demonstrators led by the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) bursting into the Asean summit venue in Pattaya during Songkran; scaring all international media and leaders away, following by violent clashes between citizens and between the military VS the Red in Bangkok. 
 
All the mayhem has led to the hellish image of Thailand around the globe and culminated in many observers’ conclusion that Thailand, once a caring nation with robust human rights awareness is perhaps experiencing the end of the heyday.
 
I don’t have to remind you what Thailand has lost during the past three years---the loss of opportunity to demonstrate that Thailand is back on stable path after the coup; the loss of the region to show solidarity to the world that this region remain largely unaffected by the global financial crisis and so remains FDI-attractive; the loss of money and creditability among the Asean colleagues for the hotel and air bookings and cancellations.
 
There are several symbolic losses of Thailand’s clout in the Asean----charter supposed to be announced in December to herald the so-called new legal-binding Charter had to be conducted in Jakarta at the Secretariat; the powerful voice of concern on situation in neighbouring countries such as Burma has become feeble as the junta felt Thailand is on its par, or even below (due to the coup and the political instability); the politicization of Preah Vihear saga (which is being drummed up again now) has been unnecessarily exposed Hun Sen leadership in Asean.
 
Some of you might remember that it was Hun Sen, not Thein Sein, who challenged the Thai host in Cha-am summit last February that if the NGOs were invited to sit with Asean leaders, he would walk-out from the meeting.   
 
Yet, look at Thailand and Asean at a more neutral eye and from a global perspective, things going on around Thailand has no real impact either positive or negative to the world.  
 
The past and present year has been overshadowed by the global financial crisis, there’s nothing much for ASEAN to do or could do, whoever is the chairman. Indonesia's inclusion in G-20 and then later inclusion of Thai PM representing South-east Asia region were more important developments, not the usual annual ASEAN get-togethers.
 
It is sad but fair to say, in the global dynamism, Asean has to move on without new things to be accomplished no matter how weak (like Thailand) or strong (like Singapore) chairmanship will be. Yet, the participation of the U.S. secretary of state Hilary Clinton for the first time in the Post Ministerial Conference and the upcoming US-Asean Summit in Singapore next month—during which Abhisit will have a short meeting with the more charming Barack Obama—is the highlights for Asean.
 
Certainly, the unresolved social divisions and the uncertainty surrounding the future of certain institutions will remain in the months and years to come; and these will hinder Thailand from emerging as a core propelling agent for the better Asean.
 
II
 
Asean: Still far from being a Community.
 
ASEAN leaders have envisaged that by 2015 Southeast Asia will be bonded together in partnership as a community of caring societies and founded on a common regional identity. It is a noble task, isn’t it?
 
Yes, as human beings we feel hot and cold when something big happen in our region such as Cyclone Nargis in Irrawaddy Delta in May last year, Buddhist monk-led demonstration against the Burmese junta two years ago, Tsunami in Indonesia and Thailand five years ago, Kitsana flooding and storm surge in Manila last month and landslide early this month, the earthquake in Indonesia’s Java this month, and the Rohingya plight in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, not to mention the plight of Indochinese refugees and the Vietnamese boat people, etc….decades ago.
 
But then when those headlines are gone and business return as usual, underlying mistrust and misunderstanding even hatred is creeping back to where it has been a cornerstone for our peoples.
 
Removing tax and tariff for greater economic integration within the 10 differing countries is already a goliathic task. But changing and/or eliminating the historical mistrust and hatred among Asean members is even harder. 
 
It is understandable that Asean nations are trying not to touch upon issues sensitive to domestic concerns in each country; therefore they could only work on certain safe areas like the establishment of the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children and on the Migrant Workers.
 
For the Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights that is about to introduce itself at this week summit, this body has invited both praises and flaks from within the region.
(This is a big separate issue and I will not touch it here—those who are interested can check my feedback from http://www.bangkokpost.co.th)
 
After all, whatever issues that the state actors like Asean and its various mechanisms/channels are working out, could not help solidify the Asean Community unless we peoples get to know more of each other. Unless we learn with open mind history which is full of wars, invasions and exploitations, so that we move forward it with a non-biased mind, so that politicians in any country in the region could play nationalistic cards for their own gains.
 
There’s perhaps one little thing that I see in Asean improvement during the Thai chairmanship is that Foreign Minister Kasit announced that Asean should roll up their sleeves to pursue an uphill task in rewriting their historical textbooks within 2013 so that we can look at each other as comrades sharing the mainland and archipelago with more responsibility and care.
 
But that’s not enough, until we really share the same core values among the 576 million people in the region; until Thai policy makers think out of the feudalistic mindset; until media and drama stopped producing same old nationalistic plots; until we look at the region as one single piece that sneeze or flood in one country will affect the neighbours….then we can achieve the above-mentioned dreams.  

 

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