ASEAN to establish free-trade zone by 2015

Consolidating ASEAN
Graphic created by me. Shows countries in ASEAN against ASEAN background.

Yet another optimistic headline. According to the Associated Press, ASEAN hopes to establish a free-trade zone among its member countries by 2015. These economic reforms will be completed in 2 phases, with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand integrating by 2010, while the remaining poorer countries, namely Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam adopting the proposals 5 years later. According to the International Herald Tribune, ASEAN wants to integrate Southeast Asia much like the European Union. Although this sounds hopeful, there are several issues and roadblocks.

I am not much of a pessimist, but I wholeheartedly believe the goals are unfeasible unless people are able to overcome their natural instincts to group with “their kind”. The European Union is united in several aspects. Politically, all of the member countries are democratic, 7 of which are constitutional monarchies, and 20 that are republics. Additionally, the “European” national identity emerged during the Roman times, when much of Europe was unified. Also, English is spoken as a first or second language by 51% of the EU’s population. In terms of religion, Europe is homogeneous, with most of its population practicing Christianity or have no religious affiliation.

On the contary, the countries that form ASEAN are diverse in respects of language, religion, and government types. ASEAN includes 1 absolute monarchy, 3 democratic constitutional monarchies, 3 democratic republics, 2 socialist republics, and 1 military regime. There is no unifying language among the countries, other than English, which is recognized as an official language in only 2 of the 10 member countries, and is not well-used outside of intellectual classes in most ASEAN countries. The three major religions among ASEAN countries are Islam (41%), Buddhism (24%), and Christianity (19%). Those without religion affiliation and Hindus account for an additional 1% each, while “other” (this may include the three major religions) forms 2% (Figures mentioned were calculated from data from the CIA World Factbook). And, historically, there has not been a “Southeast Asian” identity. Mainland Southeast Asian countries, like Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, have religious, historical and cultural affinities, while Vietnam is more closely-tied to China historically and culturally. Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei are unified by a single language (in different variants), Malay and have majority-Muslim populations. Singapore, on the other hand, is culturally Chinese for the most part, and the Philippines is Christian and Spanish and American-influenced. In terms of colonial rule, Great Britain colonized 4 ASEAN nations, France colonized 3, the Netherlands colonized 1, Spain and the U.S. colonized 1, and 1 was never colonized. These strikingly different backgrounds and the immense diversity will indeed be problems even if ASEAN succeeds in creating a large free-trade zone (consisting of 580 million people), and continues on a path toward unification (like the European Union).

ASEAN has 28 recommendations for political reform, aimed particularly at Burma. Among those are “strengthening of democratic values, good governance, rejection of unconstitutional and undemocratic changes of government, respect of the rule of law, including international humanitarian law, human rights and fundamental freedoms.” However, many of these principles run contrary to the practices of member nations (4 of the 10 are not democracies). If ASEAN wants to integrate as well as the EU has (despite its own shortcomings), it must first realize the goals of democratization in its member countries or avoid the subject entirely (as it has in the past with its non-interference policy). Closed nations like Burma must begin to open up and be receptive to what the international community advises.

Even if overnight reform does not happen, economic liberation may serve as an impetus for democratic reform. At least, that’s what I hope.


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