Is ASEAN Really Worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize?

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Is ASEAN Really Worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize?

Public faith in government and institutions are at a very low ebb.

Is ASEAN Really Worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize?

A police officer stands near national flags of ASEAN counties during the 25th ASEAN Summit in Myanmar (November 12, 2014).

Credit: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

A crisis of integrity has emerged between what governments say and how things actually are. An erosion of faith in the system, which decides how people live their lives, has been as steady and as real as climate change in recent decades.

Fake news and systemic doping in sports, along with Russian propaganda, have added to existing doubts over the trashing of the environment and government data like unemployment, inflation, or debt figures; the printing of money, cronyism, jailing of dissenters or using the courts to sue and shut opposition down have all contributed to rising cynicism.

Questioning faith in government has also been amplified by social media and the arrival on the political scene of Donald Trump as U.S. president and a similarly uncouth Rodrigo Duterte as Philippine president and current chair of ASEAN.

As U.S. president, what Trump has said has knocked the stuffing out of his country’s foreign policy and its political relationships across the board – whether with journalists, the CIA or NATO. His argument with the media over crowd sizes at his own inauguration was self-defeating.

At a regional level, Duterte has had a not too dissimilar impact when it comes to China and traditional ties with the United States, while his home-spun tough guy image, his war on drugs, and admissions that he has killed people, have earned him comparisons with Adolf Hitler.

It’s a double act that is taking politics to a new level in Southeast Asia, unnerving people and raising levels of distrust with government to untested levels.

Yet it was against that backdrop, in a column published by the Straits Times in Singapore and dedicated to Trump, that Kavi Chongkittavorn suggested the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) might be worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.

ASEAN and Its Lack of Inner Peace

The European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 on the basis that its raison d’etre had prevented a repeat of World War II. Chongkittavorn, a columnist for The Nation in Thailand, draws some unlikely parallels with ASEAN.

“Like the European Union, ASEAN should be a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in the coming decade, given its long and impressive stretch of peace and stability,” he wrote in what is essentially an open letter to Donald Trump about what’s great within ASEAN, which functions mostly as a trade bloc.

He says the signing by foreign ministers from the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore of the Bangkok Declaration half a century ago saved the region from the scourges of many potential wars.

Chongkittavorn insists ASEAN only uses nonviolent means to resolve conflicts and has a longstanding tradition in that it does not promise what it cannot deliver. These touted attributes, Chongkittavorn argues, should merit ASEAN the biggest trophy for world peace, ever.

It’s a most unlikely scenario, but we are in changing times.

The Peace Prize is given to individuals and institutions that “have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

ASEAN does not pass muster on that criteria.

History students are entitled to ask where was ASEAN when Cambodian leader Norodom Sihanouk was striking deals with the communists to allow his territory to be used for ferrying weapons up and down the Ho Chi Minh trail, or, why he joined the Khmer Rouge and urged his citizens to follow suit. They did, creating one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.

Tens of thousands of soldiers died in 1979 when Vietnam and China went to war and perhaps just as many more died during Hanoi’s 10-year occupation of Cambodia.

There are at least three separate insurgencies in the southern Philippines, which have been largely ignored by ASEAN for the last 50 years, while a separatist rebellion has been mostly overlooked for the past 13 years in Thailand’s south.

The 2008-2013 border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand at Preah Vihear was only resolved by legal action in a UN-backed court. ASEAN was not involved. ASEAN mediation efforts with Beijing over disputes in the South China Sea have also been famously scuttled from within.

It took years before the regional bloc even acknowledged there was an issue with the Rohingya in Myanmar, where another 13 civil conflicts, at least, with a variety of ethnic groups carry on without the slightest bit of interest from ASEAN.

The U.S.-championed “War on Terror” has topped the security agenda in Indonesia, the Philippines, and to a lesser extent Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia. Indonesia has seen bloody conflicts in Aceh and Poso.

Thousands upon thousands of lives have been lost while ASEAN sticks to its mantra that it never, ever dabbles in its members affairs. The only slight veering from that path occurred in mid-2015 when Myanmar was told improve its relationship with the Rohingya or leave ASEAN.

Relationships between Naypyidaw and the ethnic Muslim minority have deteriorated even further since then, under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a Nobel laureate.

A Nobel Struggle for Legitimate Laureates

The Nobel Committee in Oslo* has its own crisis of integrity, with many choices over the decades failing to win the support of the wider public. In a particularly embarrassing case, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho won jointly in 1973 for the Paris Peace Accords,** which amounted to little. South Vietnam was annexed by Hanoi and disappeared as an internationally recognized state two years later.

The 1992 prize was won by Rigoberta Menchú for her work with indigenous people. Her memoirs, which had brought her to the attention of the Nobel Committee, turned out to be partly made up.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan won the prize shortly before he was linked to an arms for food program in Iraq, where contracts were improperly diverted to his son’s company.

In 2004, the prize was awarded to Wangari Maathai for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace. She once reportedly said that HIV/AIDS was developed by Western scientists to depopulate Africa. She later denied these claims.

A very popular Barack Obama won his peace prize eight years ago, having just barely assumed the presidency, raising suspicions the Nobel Committee was pulling a stunt to bolster support from within the youth demographic.

Then the EU finally won for its contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation. Former laureates complained in the name of historical accuracy, arguing the EU was “clearly not a champion of peace.”

The gulf between what people believe and what they are told is as wide as the canyon which divides rich and poor. The world’s eight richest have as much money as the poorest half of the planet.

If the Nobel Committee wants to improve its public image with credibility then it really should shy away from any nomination, which are not difficult to arrange, afforded to ASEAN.

To add the 10-nation group – including a military dictatorship, two communist countries, and a sharia state – to the winners circle of Nobel peace prizes would simply add another name to an ignoble list of winners and cast even further doubts over global institutions and why they matter.

The alternative would be to hand ASEAN the prize and promote it as an ideal trading bloc for the 21st century with Duterte at the helm, the EU as its role model, and Trump – the focus of Chongkittavorn’s column – as a moral backbone toward which to aspire.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt

*A previous version of this piece referred to the Nobel committee in Stockholm. 

**A previous version of this piece referred to the Oslo Peace Accords.