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Philippines’ “Headache” and ASEAN’s Problems

Updated On: Nov 24, 2006

After the China-ASEAN Summit, APEC summit, now comes the ASEAN Summit.

The Philippines government is having difficulty in getting the venue ready in time for the hosting of the ASEAN Summit. This was blamed on the fact that because Myanmar was “not ready” to chair this year, Philippines has to stepped in and hence lost 12 months lead time in preparing for the summit. ,

There have been doubts as to whether the original venue of the ASEAN summit, Cebu International Conventional Centre in Mandaue would be ready. ThePhilippines government has prepared a new venue- the Shangri-La Hotel on Mactan Island as an alternative venue.

However, the difficulty in preparing the venue for hosting ASEAN summit pales in comparison to the difficulties faced within ASEAN as an organisation. ASEAN’s economic integration does not seem to have moved beyond political rhetoric. Matthew Daley, the President of the US-ASEAN Business Council stressed that, “ASEAN Free Trade Area is not really a free trade agreement because it does not deal [sic] a whole host of other issues.” For instance, ASEAN does not have common phytosanitary standards. Rene Ofreneo, the Fair Trade Alliance Executive Director commented that only the Japanese car manufacturing sector treated ASEAN as a single market. For most other industries, ASEAN is not sufficiently integrated as a single market. Ofreneo also pointed out that the inclusion of electronics as one of the 11 priority areas for integration was unnecessary given that electronics firms were located in economic zones where tariffs were already very low.

Admittedly, there has been little political will in the economic integration of ASEAN. On the other hand, where ASEAN members are willing to cooperate, they lack the capacity for effective cooperation. Indonesian Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono warned that the air forces of ASEAN faced two difficulties in dealing with terrorism. ASEAN members not only had to contend with the terrorists’ strategic and tactical advances but also their own air forces’ limitations. The variation in capacity and capability of the air forces in ASEAN mean that effective cooperation is often difficult to achieve.

As ASEAN is an inter-governmental organisation, its capacity for regional cooperation is also affected by the state of affairs in the individual members. For instance, the host of the summit, the Philippines government has had difficulty convincing the population that it is doing a good job. In a survey conducted by Asia Pulse in November 2006, President Arroyo’s disapproval rating stood at 48%, higher the 44% she received in July. What made the poll results even worse for Arroyo was the fact that she obtained the worst approval rating (25%) compared to her Vice-President (54%), Senate President (60%), House Speaker (36%) and Supreme Court Chief  Justice (37%). Arroyos’ allies insisted that Arroyo’s drop in popularity was due to her unpopular but right decisions but the claim sounded hollow given that Arroyo still hasn’t been able to tackle the myriad of problems facing the Philippines.

Arroyo had been unable to resolve the number of political killings in the country. The human rights group Karapatan said that political violence had claimed over 700 lives since 2001. The Arroyo administration has also not reached an agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on the issue on Mindanao. Her administration has also had faced several coup threats.

Still, the state of the Philippines is in a different league from Myanmar. The lack of democratic progress in Myanmar has been a major source of embarrassment for ASEAN. Myanmar has also generally turned a deaf ear to its other ASEAN members especially on matters to do with domestic political issues. For instance, this week, the Myanmar government has ignored the Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar’s renewed call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Relations between Myanmar and Thailand would also be on the headline this week after the new Thai Prime Minister Surayud’s official visit to Myanmar on Thursday 23 November 2006. Surayud had been careful to emphasise the change in Thai policy towards Myanmar and tried to differentiate the new Thai government’s policy from Thaksin’s ‘cosy’ relationship with the Myanmar government. However, given Thailand’s reliance on Myanmar for energy and labour, it is unlikely that the substance of the relationship will differ greatly. The Thai government has also been keen to emphasise that unlike the Myanmar military government, the Thai military is planning to hand power back to the civilian within a year. Notwithstanding these assurances, one cannot help but feel that as the days pass by, the cling onto the power by the Thai military junta government is fuelling discontent within Thailand itself. 

Sources:

‘Cosy’ Relations With Burma End (Bangkok Post, 23 November 2006)

PM To Bring Change to Burma Relations (Bangkok Post, 23 November 2006) \

Cop Chiefs Told To Solve Political Slays, Or Else (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 23 November 2006)

“Results, Not Rating, Matter Most” (Manila Standard, 23 November 2006)

East Asian Community; Legacy of War Stifling Bid for Single EAC Market (Bangkok Post, 22 November 2006)

Mindanao Peace Talks Hit Another Snag (Manila Standard, 22 November 2006) 

Survey Shows Distrust Still Hounds Arroyo (BusinessWorld, 22 November 2006)

Myanmar Withdrawal Gives RP A Headache (Manila Standard, 21 November 2006)

ASEAN Countries’ Air Forces Face Two Challenges in Fighting Terrorisms (Antara, 21 November 2006)

ASEAN Air Forces Faced with Two Challenges in Terrorism Fight (Bernama, 21 November 2006)

Surayud Says He’ll Visit Burma (Bangkok Post, 21 November 2006)

ASEAN Seen As a Divided Economic Block (Manila Bulletin, 20 November 2006)

Malaysian FM Again Calls For Release of Suu Kyi (Irrawaddy, 20 November 2006)