Political Crises will hobble Malaysia’s International Engagement

September 5, 2015

Political Crises will hobble Malaysia’s International Engagement

By Murray Hiebert
Murray Hiebert is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies
In Bersih 4, one of the biggest demonstrations in Malaysia’s history, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur on August 29 and 30 calling, among other things, for Prime Minister Najib Razak to resign for his handling of the economy and alleged scandals at a state investment fund. In a surprising development, the demonstrators were bolstered by two appearances by 90-year-old former leader Mahathir Mohamad, who is seeking to oust Najib, his one-time protégé.

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Much of the protesters’ ire was focused on news, which broke in July, that some $700 million had been deposited in the Prime Minister’s bank accounts shortly before the 2013 elections. Many speculate the money is linked to troubled state investment firm 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Najib is expected to survive the crisis prompted by the allegations—Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption commission has said the money was a donation from an unidentified Middle East benefactor—but it is proving to be a distraction at a time when the country is facing serious economic headwinds and preparing to host the ASEAN leaders’ meeting and East Asia Summit (EAS) in November. President Barack Obama and 16 other senior Asia-Pacific leaders are expected to attend.
FT NajibNajib plagued by scandals and corruption
As plunging commodity prices weaken Malaysia’s economy, Najib faces urgent calls to stem the loss of confidence amid allegations of financial irregularities at 1MDB. Foreign investors have pulled more than $3 billion out of the Malaysian stock market so far this year and the country’s currency has performed worse than any other in Asia.

The ongoing political crisis will make it more difficult for Malaysia to complete negotiations with its 11 partners in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, which includes the United States and Japan. Najib, who had joined the TPP in the hopes that it would help him press economic reform to boost longer-term growth, now appears to lack the political juice to push through compromises at home on such politically sensitive issues as government procurement and state-owned enterprises.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak walk off 18th hole while playing a round of golf at the Clipper Golf course on Marine Corps Base Hawaii during Obama's Christmas holiday vacation in Kaneohe, Hawaii, December 24, 2014. REUTERS/Hugh Gentry (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY)

U.S. President Barack Obama and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak walk off 18th hole while playing a round of golf at the Clipper Golf course on Marine Corps Base Hawaii during Obama’s Christmas holiday vacation in Kaneohe, Hawaii, December 24, 2014. REUTERS/Hugh Gentry

The ongoing scandal also appears to have distracted Kuala Lumpur and Washington from pressing ahead on the U.S.-Malaysia comprehensive partnership announced during Obama’s visit in April 2014. Najib and Obama played golf in Hawaii in January, but plans for Najib to visit the White House this spring were jettisoned after the Malaysian government threw opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in prison on sodomy charges.

For the U.S. administration, the challenge in the run-up to Obama’s November trip is to find effective strategies to work with Malaysia on security initiatives such as the maritime tensions in the South China Sea and regional economic schemes such as the TPP and ASEAN economic integration. At the same time, Washington finds itself in a difficult spot, wanting to give Malaysia space for its domestic politics to play out but also compelled to express concern about the government’s increasingly reactive muzzling of critical voices in the press, civil society, and political opposition, including most prominently Anwar. On this last point, Malaysian authorities’ measured response to the weekend’s protests—a stark contrast with security forces’ use of tear gas and water cannons to disperse previous Bersih rallies—helped avoid international criticism that would have further strained the ability of the United States and Malaysia to engage productively on areas of cooperation.
PMCABINETFormer Partners

Despite the anger over 1MDB, the size of the protests, and Mahathir’s involvement, Najib is expected to retain control of the government. He does not face the threat of a no-confidence vote in Parliament because his ruling coalition holds a significant majority. He also appears to retain outsize support among the leaders of his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, despite sniping from Mahathir and his supporters. As a warning to party dissidents, Najib fired his Deputy Prime Minister and the Attorney General in July and promoted four members of a parliamentary committee investigating 1MDB, thus making them ineligible to continue the investigation.

The opposition coalition lacks the heft to exploit the anger over 1MDB to challenge Najib even though it won 52 percent of the popular vote in the 2013 elections. The coalition has splintered along ethnic lines since the imprisonment of Anwar, the grouping’s charismatic leader. The mostly ethnic Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, along with Anwar’s People’s Justice Party, has split with the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) over the latter’s insistence on introducing Islamic law in areas it governs.

PAS decided not to participate in the protests, which resulted in virtually no rural Malay participation, although a small breakaway faction of PAS did support the rally. Roughly a quarter of the protesters were young ethnic Malays, but the majority were middle-class, urban ethnic Chinese, allowing UMNO leaders to conclude that most Malays were less upset about the continuing scandal surrounding 1MDB. A poll released by Merdeka Center found that 70 percent of Malays surveyed were opposed to the protest.

Malu Malu UMNOShame on Najib and Accomplishes

At least for now, the majority of the ruling party’s leaders appear to be siding with Najib. The only scenario in which they would move against the prime minister would be if they determined he would be a liability in the next elections, due before 2018, much like they decided to oust Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, in 2008. To this end, Najib remains far more concerned with the slowing economy. If the economic situation continues to deteriorate, it could undermine UMNO’s popularity even with its ethnic Malay base.

It is unlikely that Najib’s political crisis will dissipate before Kuala Lumpur hosts the summits in November. Najib and his foreign ministry demonstrated in early August that they could host an effective ASEAN Regional Forum that seriously addressed challenges in the South China Sea, despite the country’s political distractions. President Obama and Malaysia’s neighbors should assume that Najib will be able host a credible ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit in November, with serious regional economic and security discussions, despite the Prime Minister’s preoccupation with his political survival.

Time to welcome Timor Leste into ASEAN

July 31, 2015

Foreign Affairs


COMMENT: Friends of Timor Leste welcome this initiative by the Jokowi administration to push for the country’s admission into ASEAN. There are no grounds to postpone this decision and one hopes that come November 2015 ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur ASEAN leaders will welcome Timor Leste as a full and equal partner.

It is commendable that Indonesia, a former occupier of this little island nation, should take the initiative to raise the matter at the forthcoming August 2015 ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in Kuala Lumpur. This will be seen as a final reconciliation move and as formal endorsement of Timor Leste as a sovereign and independent nation state by Indonesia.

I remember  being in Dili several years ago when the question of Timor Leste’s admission into the ASEAN community was the sole agenda for the forum organised by the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research Institute. At the time, Timor Leste was protected by a UN Peacekeeping Force which included a contingent from our Royal Malaysian Police.

There was consensus among forum delegates that Timor Leste’s membership in ASEAN should be a non-issue. We, however, agreed at the time that their officials should use the interim period to learn more about ASEAN processes and work on a campaign to convince their own citizens that ASEAN would be good for their country. I was impressed with these officials for their commitment to and understanding of ASEAN.

I am now glad that the opportunity has come to admit Timor Leste. I am sure that we can look forward to welcoming the people of this beautiful island nation into our community in Kuala Lumpur at the  November 2015 ASEAN Summit. I thank President Jokowi Widodo, Foreign Minister Retno Lestari Priansari Marsudi and officials of the Indonesian Foreign Ministry for this important initiative. Timor Leste deserves our support and encouragement. –Din Merican

ASEAN: Time Leste as 11th Member –A Welcome and Timely Move

ASEAN Community 2015

The Indonesian delegates would raise the issue of membership of Timor Leste in ASEAN during the 48th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kuala Lumpur early next month, an Indonesian official said in Jakarta today.

The Indonesian government would persistently attempt to include the new nation into the ASEAN membership, China’s Xinhua news agency reported MI Derry Aman, Director at the Indonesian foreign ministry, as saying.

“Indonesia will raise the issue of Timor Leste membership in ASEAN (at the meeting). It is time for the ASEAN member countries to consider the membership of Timor Leste,” he said at his office.

Indonesia is the first country giving support to the membership as the new nation is located in the Southeast Asia region, according to Aman.

“Indonesia’s commitment is clear that Timor Leste will be an ASEAN member country in the future,” he revealed.

A study on the readiness of Timor Leste on the membership has been carrying out which will determine whether the new nation will be accepted into the Asean membership, according to him.

– Bernama

ASEAN Economic Community?

July 30, 2015

Foreign Affairs:  ASEAN Economic Community? 

By Pattharapong Rattanasevee



…without a strong central authority and mandate, ASEAN integration will remain in a mess and the AEC remain an illusion. A single market across ASEAN nations requires a strong central authority that can harmonize and standardize regional regulations, and it must be recognized by all member countries.– Rattanasevee

With just six months left before the end of 2015 and the scheduled implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community, it is clear that the member nations of ASEAN are far behind in planning what is supposed to be the integration of the region into a close-knit community featuring free movement of goods, services, skilled labor and freer flow of capital.

It is a significant step forward and could be a crucial turning point for ASEAN. But without a strong central authority and mandate, ASEAN integration will remain in a mess and the AEC remain an illusion. A single market across ASEAN nations requires a strong central authority that can harmonize and standardize regional regulations, and it must be recognized by all member countries.

ASEAN will need a guardian of competition. It will need to significantly improve the current trade competition policy and arbitration. The scheme itself requires a consensual agreement among members that should be implemented as a bundle. That is, governments should not be allowed to pick and choose among components or sectors.

ASEAN is dealing with a colossal and ambitious task but with limited resources and capacity.But how limited are these resources? ASEAN has no intention to become a supranational organization like the European Union, where members coordinate within the context of inter-governmentalism. The internal dynamics of ASEAN institutions have been designed to uphold the roles of national governments and the norms of the association — known as the ASEAN Way.

The ASEAN Secretariat — the current central authority and only real institutional organ — remains at the margins of ASEAN policy making. It does not possess the mandate or power to command individual member states, or the power to devise common policies on its own. It is a glorified secretary, responsible for only administrative support, sorting out the daily paper work and arranging meetings for the organization.

There is no guarantee that the central authority will implement policy effectively and ASEAN will be unlikely to enforce compliance from obstinate members. Interestingly, Barry Desker pointed out that during the preceding 40 years of ASEAN, only 30 percent of agreements were actually implemented.

ASEAN will need to increase funding if it is to strengthen the Secretariat. The current operational budget relies on equal contributions by the member states, reflecting the norms of equality and stemming from the belief that different contributions might lead to a hierarchy of powers. The payment has never been increased substantially and has been kept low enough to ensure the poorest members can pay. ASEAN also receives substantial funding from dialogue partners and external donors — mostly through specific projects or operations — but this is not sustainable in the long run if ASEAN wishes to present itself to the world as a non-aligned power.

The Secretariat lacks professional staff, making it difficult for it to become a powerful central administration and the backbone of the association. It employs roughly 300 staff: 65 managers and experts, 180 local staff and 55 people from donor organizations. These figures are miniscule compared to other organizations with similar size and missions. They do not fairly represent a community of 625 million people and a nominal GDP over US$2.5 trillion.

The secretariat has also been facing difficulties attracting talented and capable people. Working for ASEAN is not seen as prestigious or well-paid, unlike other regional organisations that could offer up to US$74,000 for bright talent.

These problems raise the question about how prepared ASEAN is to implement the single market scheme, and how feasible that scheme will be. The region contains countries that are prone to financial shortfalls, domestic weakness, poor governance, corruption and coordination problems.

he member states lack an ‘ASEAN mindset’ to facilitate cross-national and cross-sectoral interactions. The AEC will not thrive unless there is a significant improvement to how ASEAN policy is implemented. ASEAN does not need to — and will not — depart from the ASEAN way to become a supranational or fully-consultative organization like the EU.

But its central administration is a basis of continuity. It needs to be given mandate and resources in order to acquire the capacity to encourage compliance and support its administrative functions. This could narrow the gap between ASEAN’s rhetoric of cooperation and its actual commitments. It could improve the poor implementation record.

Additionally, the contribution system should be substantially revised. It is not realistic nor applicable to the growing activities of the association and the excessive tasks of the ASEAN Secretariat. It should consider a GDP-based contribution system or seek other sources of revenue such as a share of taxes, import duties and licensing.

Finally, ASEAN awareness must be promoted among private sectors and ordinary citizens. The AEC could bring tremendous benefits to their daily lives. Improved ASEAN awareness would encourage public scrutiny and would put massive pressure on governments to focus on accomplishing the AEC in time.

ASEAN is not quite ready for the AEC. But with some significant improvements to how the ASEAN Secretariat is run, it may just be possible.

Dr Pattharapong Rattanasevee is a lecturer at Burapha University, Chonburi, Thailand. This was adopted from an article that appeared on the website of the East Asia Forum, This was written for the East Asia Forum, a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society centered on the Asia-Pacific region. It is based out of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University 

ASEAN and the Lessons of Greece

July 25, 2015

ASEAN and the Lessons of Greece

by Dr. Munir Majid


“Thank God we don’t have a Common Currency and never should have.”

There are therefore nascent possibilities and challenges which should concentrate ASEAN minds as they consider the Greek drama in the EU’s eurozone beyond “Thank God, we do not have a single currency, and never should have.” We cannot be immunised from the unintended and unanticipated consequences of community-building. We have to have the institutions and imagination to manage them.–Dr. Munir Majid

Dr Munir MajidEUROPE has been glued to the Grexit television screen for the longest time. Going on and on for at least five years, each episode of whether Greece will remain in the eurozone or not has run longer than the longest Tamil movie of yore (although we have our own MIC version, with 1MDB trying to play catch-up).

What are the lessons for ASEAN of the EU’s Greek tragedy? No doubt the first thing that will trip out is: Thank God we do not have a common currency. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface there are deep issues involved, so many currents, cross-currents and counter-currents in the management of regional integration.

I will highlight three of the more profound: fiscal discipline; national sovereignty; and community negotiation process.

Fiscal Discipline

Fiscal discipline is actually easy to define, but so difficult to uphold when the freewheeling genie has been out of the bottle for so long with no inclination of coming back in. Under the EU’s Stability Growth Pact government deficit has to be not more than 3% of GDP and debt 60%, something characterised more in the violation than the adherence. Nothing has been done about this for years.

In the case of Greece over the last five years they were supposed to be brought down, but the numbers for the fiscal deficit went up again and the country is up to its ears in debt, coming to 200% of GDP after averaging an already unsustainable 177%.

The other side of the austerity equation is unemployment which has hit 25.6%. (Unemployment in Indonesia as a result of the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis was 30%; lowest European unemployment is in Germany at 4.7%).

Youth unemployment in Greece stands at 60%. The Greek economy has shrunk by 25% since the first IMF aid package in 2010. The government and people are saying they cannot take any more, but the creditors – on whom the Greeks are dependent for more bailout and interest servicing packages like an opiate – are saying not enough has been done in a sustained fashion to bring debt and the deficit down.

The Greeks have been used to many things which the creditors now insist on taking away from them. You cannot live beyond your means forever. The chicken is coming home to roost.

From the seven main points of the agreement reached on the night of July 13 for a new bailout package of 86 billion euros, it is clear Greece is now being pushed right against the wall – including what many in the country declare to be violation of its sovereignty.

Cutting pensions

While certain requirements such as cutting pension spending and increasing revenue, through seamless imposition of the top VAT rate of 23% for instance, might be considered par for the course in these bailout situations, the insistence on the transfer of up to 50 billion euros of “valuable Greek assets” to a new independently managed fund, as a form of collateral, was felt by Greeks to be rubbing their noses in the dirt.

National Sovereignty

Alexis and Angela

Sovereignty, what sovereignty? If Greece wants to remain in the euro and needs all the bailout money, including money to service existing bailout funds, has the country got any alternative?

The Greek Prime Minister may quote Paul Krugman on the pain and damage all the austerity requirements are causing the economy, or even appeal to a European sense of history by comparing them to the punitive terms of the Peace of Versailles in 1919 (which historians assert were the root cause of the Second World War as Germany struck back to wipe off the shame), but has he got any other option?

If you need the money, what can you do? South-East Asians may remember that picture in 1998 of the then IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus standing over the cowed former Indonesian President Suharto, as he signed away Indonesian macroeconomic sovereignty. From profligacy, it might be said, to loss of an important part of national sovereignty.

In the negotiation of the new Greek bailout deal this month – which still may undergo many twists and turns – a feature has been the predominance of Germany in the EU and in the eurozone (comprising 19 of the 28 members of the EU). It is after all the largest creditor nation and economy. If pretence was set aside, it is also the most powerful country in Europe (which arrangements at the end of the Second World War were intended to avoid – but that is a different story).

Every member country has a veto of course, but in negotiating the outline and details of the rescue package for Greece, Germany has led the way all this while and its commitment is indispensable, however much the French try to give the impression of having an eminent role as well.


So, how do we look at it all from an ASEAN perspective? The first instinct – thank God we do not have a single currency – is of course to be expected. But the thinking on what has been happening in Europe and on how relevant it is to AASEAN should not end there.

We do have big states and small states. We may say our negotiating and decision-making processes are different – and national sovereignty is untouchable. But this is too pat and shallow. The process of community-building is moving ahead. The voice of bigger countries does carry greater weight. However if it is in the service of what is good for the larger whole, there is not much to be afraid of.

The changeable predispositions of member states, however, have to be managed. Indeed, what a significant member state DOES NOT DO also affects ASEAN – as is the case now with the growing uncomfortable feeling that Indonesia under President Jokowi is not so enamoured of the regional grouping.

Indonesia therefore is critical to ASEAN. What and how it thinks, what happens in that country, have Asean impact. Thus engagement, with Indonesia particularly but also among all member countries, is most important. ASEAN needs, at this stage of its development, to have a Minister for ASEAN Affairs in each member country. The prospects and challenges need to be a focus in every national administration.

Economic management

With respect to economic management, while there is no single currency, there are threats to ALL ASEAN economies of mismanagement in ONE, especially a significant economy. Contagion is always a risk. With increased intra-regional trade (although now only a quarter of the total trade), there will be knock-on effects across the region.

Importantly – let us not forget – we are talking of ASEAN as a region, one single economy, with the prospect of the most promising growth in consumer demand and economic size (coming up to 4th in the world by 2050). ASEAN is an asset class. With the herd instincts of markets, reverse flows caused by fear of contagion can quickly develop into a regional crisis.

While global arrangements such as with the IMF remain, let us also not forget we have an untested multilateral currency swap system that includes three East Asian partner countries to address potential and actual balance of payments and short-term liquidity difficulties – the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation (CMIM). The US$240bil fund is 20% Asean and 80% China, Japan and South Korea. The commitments from each country are really promissory notes, and a country in difficulty can draw up to 2.5 times its committed amount.

Will the support always be forthcoming? Will political differences not get in the way? Not to mention an assessment of whether the country facing difficulty has exercised fiscal discipline in the management of its economy. The CMIM has an institution, AMRO (ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office), to monitor and analyse regional economies in support of its decision-making process.

The central bank governors deciding on requests for support will also rely on AMRO reports and input, and there could be conditions attached to such support, whether the 6-month Breaking Line or the One-year Stability Facility. There could be expectation, frustration, anger and discord.

There are therefore nascent possibilities and challenges which should concentrate ASEAN minds as they consider the Greek drama in the EU’s eurozone beyond “Thank God, we do not have a single currency, and never should have.” We cannot be immunised from the unintended and unanticipated consequences of community-building. We have to have the institutions and imagination to manage them.

Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid, Chairman of Bank Muamalat and Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.

Malaysia: Full Autonomy for Sarawak–A Political Mirage?

July 24, 2015

Malaysia: Full Autonomy for Sarawak–A Political Mirage?

by Joe Fernandez


The Sarawak Government is in negotiations with the Federal Government for full autonomy through the devolution of powers.

adenan-satemFull Autonomy for Sarawakians

Interestingly, the July 22 Sarawak Independence celebrations on Wednesday has been overtaken by the theme of Chief Minister Adenan Satem’s speech on the joyous occasion when he agreed with the Sarawak4Sarawakians sentiments of his people at large: Sarawak did not enter into the Federation in 1963 for Britain to simply hand over its colonial responsibilities in the territory to Malaya.

The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating. The die is cast i.e. there’s no turning back. Adenan’s critics would want to see him deliver on the contents of his bold July 22 speech this year. The question is whether full autonomy would come before the forthcoming state election, due by mid-2016, or after the polls.

In short, full autonomy for Sarawak, as an equal partner of Malaya and Sabah in the Federation. Equal partnership is the historical, legal and political reality where the South China Sea does not divide but brings together the two halves of the Federation i.e. one half in the peninsula and the other half in Borneo, remnants of the British Empire in the region.

keep-calm-and-love-sarawak-8Time for Autonomy to Sarawakians

The Sarawak Government wants the Federal Government to confine itself to national defence, foreign affairs and security while the rest would be taken care of by the state government. Adenan indicated that the way forward i.e. devolution of powers was now being negotiated with the Federal Government.

When that happens, Sabah would no doubt get full autonomy as well and on a silver platter. In fact, it was the activists in Sabah who first began the rights movement with the Sabah4Sabahans campaign in 1985 and, after a lull, revived the rights issue in 2008 when the ruling party lost for the first time its coveted two-thirds majority in Parliament.

When full autonomy comes, it would still be the Federation of Malaysia under the equal partnership concept, and not the Federation of North Borneo, Sarawak and Malaysia as many activists in Borneo have been urging. They feel that a Federation of three territories, as reflected in the name, would truly translate the concept of equal partnership.

July 22 this year is perhaps the most significant speech ever made by any head of government in the Federation since 1963 and marks a clear watershed. It was a speech which cut the Gordian Knot. The Gordian Knot is one that Alexander the Great cut through in Turkey, to pave the way, for conquering his way across Asia right up to that part of India by the banks of the Indus River.

It’s a speech where the past has caught up with us in the present to haunt the future.There’s unlikely to be a Referendum in Sarawak on Adenan’s full autonomy approach. In his words, full autonomy was the intention in 1963, meaning the founding fathers in Borneo. So, it’s not a Referendum issue.

Adenan, in pushing for full autonomy, has firmly ruled out Sarawak’s secession from the Federation and even perhaps defused the issue, although he conceded that the sentiments are out there, and there are calls for a Referendum towards that end, even as Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar warned that he would go after the “secessionists”, unnamed, in Sarawak.

Adenan, unlike Bingkor assemblyman Jeffrey Kitingan, isn’t questioning why Article 160 of the Federal Constitution defines Federation as that in the Federation of Malaya Agreement 1948. Jeffrey’s take is that Malaya was masquerading as Malaysia under Article 160, since it’s not the Malaysia mentioned in the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63).

Adenan clearly doesn’t intend to revisit either Jeffrey’s contention that the Federal Government has been in non-compliance on MA63.

Non-compliance, critics say, is the “dead horse” that’s being flogged by Jeffrey who has made the issue his constituency even before the Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) Government came to power in Sabah in 1985 under his elder brother and Huguan Siou Joseph Pairin Kitingan. Jeffrey even spent nearly four years under detention without trial in the 1990s, under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), for allegedly plotting to pull out Sabah from the Federation.

Earlier, when it appeared that the Police were not in favour of July 22 being observed, the Sarawak Government was accused in the social media of caving in to the official line that “Sarawak achieved its independence through Malaysia”.

Immediately, the demand in the social media was for the Sarawak Government to state clearly, viz. in no uncertain terms, when Sarawak obtained its independence from Britain in 1963 i.e. July 22 or September 16.The question has now been answered.

It’s Humanitarian Intervention, not Interference

May 19, 2015

Phnom Penh

It is Humanitarian Intervention, Not Interference


In this commentary on Ms. Khoo’s article I take the view that ASEAN’s non-interference principle can be reviewed in the context of regional concerns about human rights, human trafficking and security.Times have have changed. There is no harm done to review its applicability in keeping with regional and international developments.

ASEAN_logo_1But  to my mind, there is no doubt about its continued relevance in intra-ASEAN relations and international relations. The principle is also embodied in the United Nations Charter. There are times like  the  present Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugee crisis that affect the littoral states of Thailand. Malaysia and Indonesia when quick collective action should be taken to  rescue those still at sea from certain death and  stamp out the flow of refugees. Both Myanmar and Bangladesh are responsible for precipitating this humanitarian crisis and they have a duty to deal with it. As they have not, regional and international intervention to tackle  serious human rights abuses is warranted.

The non-intervention principle can be suspended but that does not invalidate its value  as a guiding principle governing relations among nation states. But ASEAN must look at mechanisms for rapid action in times of human tragedy.

ASEAN holds dear to the principle of non-interference which is enshrined in the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (SEATAC). The purpose of the Treaty is to promote perpetual peace, everlasting amity and co-operation among the people of Southeast Asia which would contribute to their strength, solidarity, and closer relationship. In their relations with one another,  ASEAN leaders would  be guided by the following fundamental principles:

  • a. mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations,
  • b. the right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion,
  • c. non-interference in the internal affairs of one another,
  • d. settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means,
  • e. renunciation of the threat or use of force, and
  • f. effective co-operation among themselves.

SEATAC is also the document which countries like the United States, China and others are required to become signatories before they can be dialogue partners in the ASEAN Regional Forum.  ASEAN leaders thought (they were right) that this principle was fundamental to the preservation of peace and stability of Southeast Asia,  which was a victim of big power rivalry during the period of the Cold War, and US military intervention in Vietnam.

Human rights abuses as in Myanmar have raised questions about the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.  As Khoo states, “[T] he non-interference principle is being increasingly questioned through its expanded influence, new challenges arising from globalisation processes, and most importantly, the increasing need to focus on human security.” Some have argued that ASEAN needs to rethink about this principle.

By all means do that since times have changed. But I am of the view that there is a strong case to ensure that non-interference continues to be the principle guiding relations between members, and with other states.

In the Rohingya case, ASEAN must create first create mechanisms to deal with the humanitarian crisis promptly so that lives are not lost.That includes the creation of a Rapid Deployment Force of Naval, Police and Immigration personnel to undertake search and rescue operation to save lives and deal with syndicates engaged in human trafficking.

At present, the problem is left in the hands of littoral states like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand while Myanmar, the perpetrator, is allowed to pursue  ethnic cleaning.  Surely, the military junta must be held to account for allowing Buddhist monks to commit wanton acts on violence against a minority community with a view to exterminating them. Second, in the spirit of ASEAN cooperation, Myanmar must stop the flow of refugees and provide food and shelter and a safe haven for those who remain and others who will be repatriated.

This will give time for  a lasting political solution to be found regarding the status of the Rohingyas in their homeland. Third, the United Nations and ASEAN diplomats led by Malaysia as the 2015 ASEAN chair, and others like China, India, the European Union and the US can nudge Myanmar along the process towards national reconciliation.

This is the time for urgent and decisive action. Forcing Myanmar out of ASEAN is not an option.  Instead, ASEAN needs to engage in a consultative dialogue with the military junta towards finding a lasting solution to the Rohingya issue.–Din Merican

*Din Merican is Associate Dean, Techo Sen (Hun Sen) School of Government and International Relations, University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. The views expressed in this commentary are his own and do  not in any way implicate his organisation

The Dilemma of Non-Interference in ASEAN

by Khoo Ying Hooi @www.themalaysianinsider.com

Ying Hooi is attached with a local university. Her research interests cover the fields of civil society, social movements, protests, political participation, human rights and democratization.

Recently, the international community was shocked when boats filled with 2,000 ethnic Rohingya arrived in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. About 8,000 Rohingya are reportedly still adrift at sea following a crackdown on human trafficking syndicates.

The humanitarian crisis casts the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in a negative light. The incident has also revealed the core of many problems in Asean itself, that is the immense pressure on the regional bloc to rethink its principle of non-interference in internal affairs of neighbouring states.

The non-interference principle is being increasingly questioned through its expanded influence, new challenges arising from globalisation processes, and most importantly, the increasing need to focus on human security.

According to the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a People-Oriented, People-Centred ASEAN adopted at the 26th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur on April 27, ASEAN leaders agreed to “continue establishing a people-oriented, people-centred and rules-based ASEAN community where all people, stakeholders and sectors of society can contribute to and enjoy the benefits from a more integrated and connected community encompassing enhanced cooperation in the political-security, economic and socio-cultural pillars for sustainable, equitable and inclusive development”.

Under the sub-topic on socio-cultural, the declaration stated: “Promote and protect the rights of women, children, youth and elderly persons as well as those of migrant workers, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, ethnic minority groups, people in vulnerable situations and marginalised groups, and promote their interests and welfare in Asean’s future agenda including through the ASEAN community’s post-2015 vision and its attendant documents”.

Less than a month after the adoption of the declaration, the plight of the Rohingya blew up.The Rohingya crisis is not a new problem in ASEAN. For decades, ASEAN has turned a blind eye to the fate of the Rohingya, one of the world’s most vulnerable minorities.

In my previous article entitled, “An ASEAN detached from its peoples” derived from my reflections after attending the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Assembly (ACSC/ APF), I said that what is seriously lacking in ASEAN is not declarations or statements, but fundamental issues such as people’s access to land and resources as well as minority rights for those such as the Rohingya.

Critics have long voiced doubts over ASEAN’s ambition for closer integration, known asASEAN EC the ASEAN Community, given the grouping’s sacred stance on sovereignty. The Rohingya crisis comes as a real test of the degree to which ASEAN member states take seriously their commitment to regional cooperation on protecting human rights as enshrined in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.

The reluctance of Myanmar to openly discuss the issue is a clear obstacle for ASEAN to further develop a joint position. However, on the other hand, it is a moral obligation of Asean member states to find ways for a sustainable solution to the long-standing Rohingya issue by ensuring it is on the agenda of ASEAN meetings.

The Rohingya crisis has raised the pragmatism of ASEAN’s non-interference principle. At this crucial year of 2015, the deadline for the three pillars under the ASEAN community, ASEAN is fully aware that the issue could imperil the group’s stability in the region.

Although Myanmar is primarily responsible for the influx of Rohingya refugees, ASEAN has no choice but to go beyond its non-interference principle in order to maintain peace and stability in the region. Otherwise, silence on the issue could undermine ASEAN’s goal of achieving peaceful economic development in the long-term.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.


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