A Mixed Report Card for Southeast Asia

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A Mixed Report Card for Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia’s high-performing economies come with a price. Mong Palatino on the path ahead.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the largest, and the official, political organization in Southeast Asia. But given where it sits—south of China and Japan, east of India, and north of Australia—the political landscape in this part of the world is not exclusively dictated by ASEAN dynamics. 

The Indochina Peninsula, which shares land borders with China, is mainland Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, Indonesia and the Philippines are big archipelagic nations in the Pacific. Borneo is the third biggest island in the world.

The region’s global cities are Singapore, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur. Third World spectacles are highly visible in the cities of Jakarta, Manila and Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). World-famous exotic destinations are to be found in Phuket, Bali, and Boracay.

The region is also a major international assembly and manufacturing hub. China may have been the preferred investment choice of multinational companies in recent years but it didn’t lead to the closure of Southeast Asia’s free trade and export zones. Last year’s ‘Great Flood’ in Bangkok revealed that 40 percent of the world’s computer hard drives are manufactured in Thailand.

But the region is a place of contradictions. It is home to glitzy skyscrapers like Malaysia’s Petronas Towers that also bred infamous sweatshops which became a target of boycott campaigns by consumer groups in the United States and other developed countries. This embarrassing issue actually forced governments to upgrade the work standards in their factories. However, there are still disturbing reports about fainting workers in Cambodia and child laborers in Vietnam and the Philippines.

Southeast Asia’s uneven development is also reflected with the rise of rich countries like Singapore and Brunei while poor countries like Laos continue to search for appropriate economic models. Because of the reforms it recently implemented, which have caught the attention of a lot of business and political leaders, Burma could be the next emerging market. Cambodia, another late player in the globalization club, has just opened a stock market this year.

The movement of people across borders in the region has generated some intense complications in the relationships between ASEAN members. Inter-government cooperation is urgently needed to address the problems faced by refugees living near the borders of Burma and Thailand. The human and sex trafficking corridor which spans the entire region must be replaced with a new trail of human development, peace, and grassroots empowerment. ASEAN has recently drafted a human rights declaration yet it refused to tackle the dilemma of the Burma-based Rohingyas who are probably the world’s most persecuted minority group since no country wants to call them its citizens. Another big challenge is how to stop the spread of terror cells in the region.   

Labor migration is also an important issue which Southeast Asian governments must seriously discuss. Malaysia and Indonesia have been exchanging notes on how to protect the welfare of domestic workers. Human rights groups have been pressuring Thailand to improve its policies concerning the growing Burmese migrant community in the country. Singapore is facing a strong local opposition with regard to its aggressive hiring of foreign workers.

Southeast Asia has one of the most productive agriculture sectors in the world. But the region became notorious because of the so-called Golden Triangle which at one point in the past century became the top opium-producing field in the world. Despite the aggressive campaign of various governments to destroy the opium fields, cultivation is still practiced in several provinces of Burma. 

The Strait of Malacca and South China Sea are among the busiest shipping lanes in the world. They are also said to be sitting on top of vast oil and mineral deposits which partly explain the naval clashes, border disputes, and competing sovereignty claims of several countries with regard to the islets, reefs, shoals, and small islands found in the area.

At least Singapore and Malaysia already resolved their dispute over some rocky formations which often disappear during high tide in the Singapore Strait. But tensions are still high in the Spratlys, Scarborough Shoal, and Paracels.

China is accused of being a bully by insisting that it historically owns many islands in the region’s open seas. But not all conflicts in the region bear the ‘Made in China’ trademark. Many disputes are actually between supposedly friendly neighbors within the ASEAN grouping. For example, Thailand and Cambodia are feuding over the ownership of Preah Vihear temple and the four square kilometers of territory around it. Elsewhere, Indonesia is accusing Malaysia of stealing its cultural heritage.  

The infighting between ASEAN members calls into question the feasibility of forming a single ASEAN market which could pave the way for the creation of a regional currency, visa, and even the sending of a unified team to the Olympics.

Regional solidarity is also necessary to confront the harsh impact of climate change in the region. Disaster risk is high in several countries because they are located in the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ which means tropical storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions frequently occur. Scientists in the region should intensify and share research on how weather disturbances are affecting crop production. 

Environment protection should be a regional initiative as well. Forest burning in Indonesia generates deadly haze in Malaysia and Singapore almost every year. Deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia brought about by expanding rubber plantation and palm oil production are wiping out the region’s endemic species.

Southeast Asia is home to varying shades of democracy. Old democratic states like the Philippines are often compared with young and vibrant democracies like East Timor which recently held a relatively peaceful parliamentary and presidential election. Papua is burning today because of the independence struggle there. They should learn from the six-decade struggle of Karen rebels who are waging the world’s longest continuing civil war in Burma. 

Admittedly, the region is a complicated mess. But it’s a chaos that can be easily put into order. Today, global powers are actively providing solutions, models, and all forms of assistance to extend their sphere of influence in the region. But Southeast Asia should realize that as a regional bloc, it can stand on its own.