Unity Lacking in South-east Asia

South-east Asians have failed to find a collective identity. It’s holding countries in the region back.

Regional kinship in South-east Asia is weak or nonexistent—we see ourselves as Asians generally, but not residents of the ASEAN area specifically. Indeed, Filipinos are so busy being Filipinos that they’ve forgotten the heritage they share with the rest of South-east Asia.

The same can, of course, be said of other nationalities in the region. But nationalism isn’t the only reason why regional affinity is practically absent here. The colonial experience is partly to blame for the problem—foreign occupation interrupted the long and productive relations of kingdoms big and small in the region, with centuries of Western domination blurring the ties of this important historical period.

The formation of the Association of South-east Asian Nations was, on the surface, a significant step. Yet ASEAN remains an impotent political body—a regional grouping with constituents who don’t appreciate its objectives. As a result, ASEAN is more like a joint venture between governments that rarely involves the people they govern.

Disunity in South-east Asia can also be seen in the lack of interest among its people in knowing more about the social conditions and cultures of their neighbours—South-east Asians are more knowledgeable about the lives of Americans or Europeans than about the people in their own neighbours. The result is an inability to empathize with the problems of other South-east Asian countries. Clueless to the challenges confronting their neighbours, even the region’s governments consistently fail to work out the right time to help during crises situations.

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Another example of disunity in the region is the numerous border disputes throughout the region. One of the best-known cases involves the historic Preah Vihear temple and the four square kilometres of territory around it, which are claimed by both Thailand and Cambodia. The border dispute between the two is just one of the many simmering conflicts in South-east Asia, especially in the Indochina region. In addition, there are still unsettled border disputes between Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia.

Such regional tensions are disappointing, although the condescending behaviour South-east Asians have toward each other is little different than that citizens of each country show toward each other.

For example, the dominant Buddhist Thais aren’t generally on good terms with ethnic Malay Muslims living in southern Thailand. The Catholic majority in the Philippines, meanwhile, is denying Muslim Filipinos in the southern Philippines their right to self-determination. In addition, racism is still a serious—if not the most serious—political issue in multi-ethnic Malaysia.

The unspoken hostility between South-east Asians makes it almost impossible to implement region-wide initiatives. For example, there have been proposals for a joint Olympics team, the use of a single currency like the euro and the possible issuance of a single visa for the whole region.

As things stand, none of this is likely to occur. And yet the divisions in the region are actually hurting each of these countries. For example, the inability to unify makes it easy for major powers like China, Japan and the United States to obtain advantageous deals from ASEAN member countries—the US has already clinched military basing agreements with several South-east Asian countries, Japan has been successful in acquiring one-sided bilateral economic agreements and China is acting like a big brother in the region.    

This could all be so different if South-east Asia were united, something which would force powerful countries to rethink their negotiating tactics.

It’s clear that ASEAN needs to be overhauled. It’s also clear that Malaysians, Filipinos, Indonesians and other nations in the region would also be better off trying to identify themselves as South-east Asians. The trouble is that most people are so distracted by trivial conflicts that they can’t see the benefits of a regional bloc.

China, Japan and India are still Asia’s major powers. But a united South-east Asia could do much to alter the balance of power in this part of the world.