Setting the tone for Asean’s future

Nay Tun Naing

“I am a peaceful man now after the Asean,” said Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte upon his return this weekend from the Asean Summit in Laos.

“I don't want to pick a fight with any nation. I only want to be at peace with everybody. Doing business with everybody," he added.

Duterte’s conciliatory comments stand in contrast to his comments directly before the summit, in which he referred to US president Barack Obama as a “son of a bitch” in response to a question about the possibility of Obama questioning the Philippine president about his support of extrajudicial killings of drug dealers.

In response to the comments, President Obama cancelled his scheduled meeting with Duterte in Laos.

This turbulence is characteristic of Asean’s path toward regional cooperation.

The summit failed to address a ruling passed by the International Court of Arbitration on the Philippines’ conflict with China on the South China Sea. Laos failed to hold the Asean Youth Forum this year and was also accused of trying to hide human right violations in the country during summit.

For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi, who represented Myanmar at the summit, kept a low profile, failing to highlight allegations of human rights violations in Myanmar.

Other Asean leaders are managing their own controversies. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak faces accusations of corruption and is being criticised for trying to hold onto power. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is also has a tenacious grip on power and has been accused of bowing too often to China. Thailand is governed by leaders of a military coup. There is tension between Indonesia and Singapore over the former’s illegal forest fires. Brunei has been criticised for enacting Sharia law and violating human rights.

Under these circumstances, some predict that Asean may face secessions akin to the UK’s exit from the EU, but this is impossible as Asean follows a policy of non-interference in each member state’s national affairs.

Upon Duterte’s acceptance of the Philippines’ chairmanship of Asean in 2017, the president said the bloc would celebrate its 50th anniversary, which would be an occasion to set the tone for the next 50 years.   

Let’s hope the next 50 years see more cooperation and transparency than the last.