This week, officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met to review and discuss ongoing regional cooperation to combat transnational crimes. The meeting, held in the Philippine capital of Manila, provided a window into where Southeast Asia is on a series of challenges ranging from terrorism to cybercrime.
Though Southeast Asian states have been dealing with transnational crimes – which include not just terrorism, but illegal drugs, human trafficking, smuggling, money laundering, piracy, and more recently, intellectual property theft and cybercrime – for decades, regional cooperation really began to take off only in the late 1990s. In 1997, ASEAN ministers held the inaugural meeting of the ASEAN ministers of interior and home affairs on transnational crime, signed the ASEAN Declaration on Transnational Crime, and formed the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crimes (AMMTC), initially to be held every two years.
The role of AMMTC had initially been to serve as the highest policymaking and coordinating body on ASEAN cooperation on transnational crime amidst other meetings, institutions, and plans that deal with the subject, including the Senior Officials Meeting on Transnational Crime (SOMTC); the ASEAN Chiefs of National Police (ASEANAPOL). The AMMTC has since gone through some evolution, including its expansion to the “Plus Three” format first held in 2004 and seen with other ASEAN meetings including Japan, South Korea, and China.
The past few years have seen some efforts by ASEAN states to strengthen cooperation on transnational crimes. During Malaysia’s ASEAN chairmanship, Southeast Asian states signed the new Kuala Lumpur Declaration in Combating Transnational Crime and agreed to various measures, including agreeing to hold the AMMTC annually instead of biannually starting in 2016, and adding three new areas – illicit trafficking in wildlife, illicit trafficking in timber, and people smuggling – in addition to the traditional eight areas (drug trafficking, terrorism, economic crimes, human trafficking, money laundering, piracy, weapon smuggling and cybercrime).
From September 18 to 21, the 11th AMMTC took place in Manila. The meeting this year was chaired by Undersecretary Catalino S. Cuy, Officer-in-Charge of the Department of the Interior and Local Government of the Philippines, and featured attendance by officials from all ten ASEAN member states.
Consistent with AMMTC’s role, the essence of the meeting was on reviewing existing progress being made within other groupings as well as considering new ideas for cooperation. The ministers noted inroads made in terms of integrating specific areas like wildlife, timber trafficking, and arms smuggling into the SOMTC Work Program; findings from documents recently issued, such as by the 37th ASEANAPOL meeting held in Singapore earlier this month; adoption of previous agreements which are currently being implemented like the ASEAN Plan of Action in Combating Transnational Crimes from 2016 out to 2025; and the development of the Bohol Trafficking in Persons Work Plan to implement the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.
But issue-wise, with rising fears about the influence of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia – only further heightened by the Marawi crisis that erupted back in May – the focus was on terrorism. The highlight of the meeting in this respect was the convening of the Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on the Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism (SAMMRRVE), a new platform for member states to exchange experiences, views, and ideas on the subject.
At the end of the meeting, Southeast Asian states said they would further intensify efforts to counter these threats not just through dialogue, exchange of intelligence, joint operations, and capacity-building, but encouraging tolerance as well. ASEAN state also adopted a revised ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counterterrorism and the Manila Declaration to Counter the Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism, while endorsing the ASEAN Declaration to Prevent and Combat Cybercrime.
ASEAN ministers also met with their counterparts from China, Japan, and South Korea to discuss strengthening cooperation with them as well. While noting the progress being made among Southeast Asian states, Cuy candidly acknowledged that dialogue partners were concerned that resolving the situation in Marawi had taken this long, particularly since it increased the possibility that this could spread over into other Asian states as well.
The 12th AMMTC and related meetings are expected to be hosted by Myanmar in 2018. And given the significance of transnational crimes as a threat to Southeast Asian states as well as the growing attention the subregion is devoting to them, there will no doubt be no shortage of issues to contend with there.