Asean: The Distant Dream of Unity

Flags of European Union (EU) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) members are seen during the EU-Asean summit on March 14 in the Congress center in Nuremberg, Germany. Foreign ministers from both groups met in the southern German city hoping to move towards a free trade deal between the regions. (Photo: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen / AFP-Getty Images)

Cebu Pacific Air's small Airbus-319s depart from Manila, Philippines for an almost four-hour long journey to Jakarta, Indonesia, but the service started only recently and the route is not flown every day. The capitals of two enormous Southeast Asian countries are still effectively disconnected; Cebu Pacific — a Philippine no-frills airline — offers the only direct link. Indonesia's flag carrier, Garuda Indonesia, doesn't fly to Manila or anywhere else in Philippines, while Philippine Airlines flies to Jakarta only once a day, through Singapore.

There are no direct flights between Hanoi, Vietnam and Jakarta or between Hanoi and Manila. One cannot fly directly between Jakarta and Vientiane, Laos, or between Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Yangon, Myanmar.

But the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which loosely links ten countries in the region (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam), has some truly lofty goals and ambitions including economic integration; passport-free travel for its citizens; an integrated transportation system; even a common currency. Optimists are aiming at the nothing short of a Southeast Asian version of the European Union.

However, that would be almost impossible to achieve: all 10 countries are divided not only by a thin airline network, but also by bitter histories and deeply ingrained mistrust. Most inhabitants of Southeast Asia hardly have any knowledge about life and culture in neighboring nations. Even the value of commerce between Asean countries is insignificant, with the exception being trade with Singapore by the other nine members.

Twentieth century history can be considered the main reason for the divisions. Vietnam, while fighting a bitter and bloody war against the United States, had to suffer attacks coming from Thai and Philippine soil. During World War II, Thailand allowed Japanese troops to use its territory and later participated in the savage and indiscriminate bombing of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam during what is known in former Indochina as the "American War." Its bases and airfields were used to launch hundreds of thousands of deadly United States' sorties, which took the lives of millions of innocent men, women and children north and east of Thai borders.

Sukarno's Indonesia has been bombed in the past by the United States from the bases in the Philippines. Malaysia, and even Singapore, has suffered from the Indonesian policy of "confrontation."

But history is not the only dividing factor. Predominately Muslim nations, both Malaysia and Indonesia feel alarmed by the presence of American military personnel in Jolo (Sulu) in the southern Philippines, where they are engaged in fighting what the United States often describes as "the second front in the war against terrorism." Jolo is just a boat ride away from the Malaysian state of Serawak, as well as from Indonesian Kalimantan. Breaking its own laws, the Philippine government is now allowing American troops to participate in combat operations again Muslim insurgents, in exchange for "humanitarian assistance."

Suffering from Muslim separatist attacks originating in the south of their country, Thailand is accusing neighboring Malaysia of supporting the insurgency, while Malaysia claims that the Muslim minority in Thailand is being discriminated against.

Malaysia and Singapore are locked in a number of minor disputes, while there are serious border disputes between Indonesia and Malaysia that often lead to mobilization of their two navies, a situation which threatens to escalate to war.

Singapore is stubbornly refusing to sign an extradition treaty with Indonesia, which means that some of the most corrupt Indonesian citizens who robbed the country of hundreds of millions of dollars can enjoy, up to now, a luxurious and safe life while holed up in posh condominiums within the city-state.

Thailand's brutal treatment of Burmese refugees, particularly the forced deportation of HIV-positive illegal migrants to their certain death in junta-sponsored camps, has received international condemnation but Thailand doesn't treat even its own minorities well — the same that can be said about almost every member of Asean.

And the list goes on — not exactly a sound blueprint for harmonious coexistence between a group of nations dreaming about integration and unity. Two countries with observer status — East Timor and Papua New Guinea (PNG) — would hardly help to simplify matters if they were allowed to join Asean permanently. East Timor lost roughly one third of its population during a brutal Indonesian occupation, while PNG shares the same islands and culture with Papua, which so far has lost more than 100,000 people in its fight for independence from Jakarta.

But who is really dreaming about integration? It seems that the common people living in Southeast Asia know close to nothing about each other, with the exceptions being citizens of Singapore and arguably Malaysia, as well as those living in border areas.

A dentist in Bangkok working for an international clinic recently commented to me that it would be more practical to get dental treatment in Japan if I am based in Jakarta, since Tokyo is "so much closer to Jakarta than Bangkok." A middle class man in Manila was actually shocked to learn that Jakarta is not in Europe. There is no knowledge in Indonesia about Vietnam, Myanmar or Laos and very little about the Philippines. Cambodians tend to know much more about the United States, China and Europe (due to the United Nations peace missions in the country) than about Malaysia, Indonesia or Myanmar.

Travel between most of Asean countries is not encouraged. Indonesian citizens visiting Bangkok, or even neighboring Singapore, have to pay a departure tax (basically a tax for leaving their country: 1 million Rp, equivalent to $110, when they travel by air, half of that if they take a ferry). The Philippines demands a higher departure tax from their own citizens than that which has to be paid by foreigners. Short weekend trips and "know your neighbors" travel adventures are almost unthinkable for the great majority of citizens living in Asean countries who are surviving on meager incomes.

Cultural exchanges are almost non-existent. Indonesia and the Philippines live on an almost exclusive diet of Western and local pop, as well as cheap soap operas imported from as far as Latin America. Hipsters in Hanoi closely follow music, films and fashion from Seoul and Tokyo, not from Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta. Literature revered in Manila never makes it to the bookstores in Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta, and vice versa. The same can be said about the music and film industries. The only cultural exchange is happening between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore due to the closeness of Malay and Indonesian languages, but even there it involves pop music almost exclusively.

Tiny, and extremely wealthy, Singapore is the only exception. In fact, the best music productions from the region are performed in its concert halls; the greatest Indonesian and Vietnamese painters exhibit and sell in its galleries. Two major wings of the Asian Civilizations Museum are trying to compile examples of artistic excellence from the entire region. In short, Singapore, due to its size and wealth, is an exception that proves the rule.

On the drawing boards of the Asean planners there are wide highways and railway links, which they say will one day connect the entire Southeast Asia, from Singapore to Thailand, and including Cambodia and Vietnam. The entire region, with a population of roughly three quarters of billion, would then live in harmony, sharing what political leaders of Malaysia and Singapore used to characterize as "Asian values."

But the reality is far from that — it is bleak. Asean nations are as divided as ever. Social grievances are increasing and many of the countries are experiencing a rapid nose-dive in the quality of education. More then half of the people in Asean countries live on less than $2 a day. Nationalism and religion are still playing decisive roles, often blocking the way to progress.

Thailand recently endured a military coup, and is still facing a separatist insurgency. The Philippines is in a constant, low-grade civil war in its restless south, while dozens of its journalists, activists and opposition figures are being murdered annually. Indonesia is periodically suffering from hundreds of manmade and natural disasters that kill thousands of people through corruption, mismanagement, poor planning and endemic poverty. The Malaysian ruling party recently trumpeted to the world that it is ready to spill blood to defend the rights of the native Malay majority and those who follow Islam. The situation in Myanmar is nothing short of continuous nightmare. Most of the problems are specific to each particular country, but some of the most severe are regional.

Instead of focusing on big dreams of political integration and free trade, which in this part of the world means mostly incentives for big businesses, Asean should occupy itself with more "modest," but much more urgent issues like poverty and education. It should also address its fractured history and begin building bridges between its people. Above all, it should put lives of its common people above business and commercial interests. A common currency and a single flag can come much later.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Andre Vltchek.