Flashes of ASEAN Brilliance

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Flashes of ASEAN Brilliance

Burma was, as usual, a low point at the latest ASEAN summit. But there was good news on the environment.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders emerged from this year’s annual meet with a mixed report card.

For a start, differences between the Cambodians and Thais over their border conflict were just as great after the annual summit in Jakarta as they were before.

Meanwhile, a decision to ask Burma to accept the chair of the organization in 2014—despite its atrocious human rights record—was hardly a high point, and could prove to be a call that current leaders will regret.Human Rights Watch called the Burma decision a regional embarrassment and noted there were currently 2,000 political prisoners in Burmese jails in the aftermath of staged elections widely judged a sham (although the country’s ruling junta insists they were free and maybe fair).

On a brighter note, there was progress on the environmental front. Laos came to the party and told Vietnam it would suspend work on the controversial Xayaburi Dam planned for the Mekong River. Hanoi, backed by Phnom Penh, had sought a 10-year deferment of the scheme.

The decision followed a meeting on the sidelines in Jakarta between Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong and his counterpart Nguyen Tan Dung. It was a victory for commonsense and regional food security, which scientists argue would be compromised if a push to develop more than 10 dams along the mainstream of the Mekong were to proceed.

As a trading bloc, ASEAN is shaping up as a formidable force. But it often struggles when it comes to thornier issues involving human rights and cultural backstops. Every now and again, however, there are moments of brilliance, as was the case with Malaysia and ASEAN Dialogue Partner Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced Canberra had reached an agreement with Kuala Lumpur to combat people smuggling. It was a clever deal, and to quote one seasoned analyst, it looks like ‘the boffins in both countries had actually thought about it.’

Under the agreement, Malaysia has agreed to take up to 800 asylum seekers with their claims to be processed in Malaysia by the United Nations. In return, Australia has agreed to take 4,000 genuine refugees who have already had their claims assessed in Malaysia. This means asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat will be sent directly to Malaysia and to the back of the queue. The agreement will cost about $300 million AUD over four years.

With an eye on its own shores, Australia desperately wants a regional solution to people smuggling, but it’s a blight that has plagued Southeast Asia for decades, and this needs to be taken into account.

The region is dominated by an abundance of such camps. On the northern tip of Borneo, about 400,000 Filipinos who fled the war in the Southern Philippines have resided in such camps for decades.

Thousands more, mainly from Burma, are holed up in camps along the Thai border.

A comprehensive response to illegal immigration in Australia was improbable unless it dealt with illegal immigrations at a regional level. The Malaysian-Australian agreement appears to have done just that, and could form the basis for a much wider pact within ASEAN on people smuggling in future.