In short, religion will also emerge as a backstop or guardian for communities seeking protection from the middle-men and peddlers of dirt-cheap labor in a region where forced child labor, press gangs and human trafficking on behalf of industries ranging from garments to fishing have flourished.
On the other hand, there is also a risk that religious problems will travel with the mass migration of workers. The violence of today could consequently be taken into parts of Southeast Asia previously untouched by militancy.
“There won’t be too many problems for skilled people at the higher end,” Welsh said, referring to professionals like doctors or engineers. “But at the lowest end the AEC could just be legitimizing modern day slave labor practices.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
He added, “You will see Burmese Buddhists going to Cambodia to work in the garment industries while young uneducated Cambodians will probably have to forgo their Buddhist background and work in Malaysia as domestic helpers where they work 24 hours, seven days a week.”
ASEAN and its policy of non-interference in a neighbor’s affairs have also ensured that the bloc played no constructive role from the outset in the latest Sabah insurgency, or in Burma where even Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has remained silent on the atrocious plight of Muslim Rohingyas.
“I feel like ASEAN is turning a blind eye to the economic situation in Burma,” said the source from Meiktila. “They need to take care to make concrete recommendations for development at a localized level rather than one big super South East Asian economy,” she said.
None of this bodes well for a united ASEAN, a trading bloc with aspirations of becoming a political entity with real international clout. The AEC review called for by Pehin Hazair Abdullah in Brunei is long overdue, but could help and is due for completion by September.
Unless ASEAN begins to tackle its racial and religious disharmony – much of it brought about by government attitudes towards their own minorities – then the grouping and its much vaunted AEC plans will look more like a rubber stamp for cheap labor, while strengthening the religious divides, as opposed to delivering on a regional model of laissez-faire economics.