Religion, Race and Politics: ASEAN’s Gordian Knot
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Religion, Race and Politics: ASEAN’s Gordian Knot

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Delivering an integrated economic community by 2015 is a long-cherished ASEAN dream. But events in recent weeks have shown just how difficult the task will be, driving home the complex realities facing the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), particularly on issues of race and creed.

Hardline Islamic militancy has surfaced again in Indonesia, while in the Southern Philippines ongoing tensions between Christians, Muslims and ethnic Moros in search of a homeland have spilled over into Sabah in East Malaysia. In Burma, anti-Muslim attacks have spread, while in Vietnam and Laos all religions must follow the lead of an atheist central government.

ASEAN has already witnessed unprecedented political divisions, which were well documented last year when Cambodia as the annual chair of ASEAN ignored regional responsibilities and sided with China over its stand on negotiations involving territorial claims in the South China Sea.

However, religious and ethnic animosities are more deeply rooted and pose the biggest obstacles to lowering the barriers for a 500-million strong population who will begin moving across borders in search of work and mingling like never before, once the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) becomes a reality.

Authorities have been coy about the launch date for the AEC, offering little and avoiding reporters’ questions on the subject. They usually respond by saying the community will become a reality by 2015, but the date has been pushed back to the end of that year.

During a recent meeting in Brunei, this year’s ASEAN chair, the Bruneian Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports Pehin Hazair Abdullah emphasized time was running out and a review of the AEC was needed to assure all of its objectives were being met.

“We are two years away from 2015, when the ASEAN Community begins,” he said at the meeting. “The time is short and we need to act fast on this.”

His sense of urgency was refreshing.

From a fiscal and monetary policy perspective, the legislation is in place and the infrastructure – particularly for cross-border trade – has been built. The desire to make money and prosper has never been greater.

But critics argue that ASEAN – which uses the European Union as its role model for financial unity and stability – lacks the basic safeguards needed to ensure a fair and even approach to a workforce that is about to witness a massive upheaval in its traditions of organized labor.

Dave Welsh, from the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said those safeguards should include a social security net, a process for collective bargaining and an independent labor tribunal to handle complaints.

“Nobody has told us the specifics, nor are they talking in terms of how to avoid the utter chaos that could arise. We don’t know which workers are going to which country,” he told The Diplomat, adding that worker choices, particularly among lower working classes, could be driven by religion.

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