Asean Community without Asean identity

opinion January 19, 2015 01:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Natio

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The Asean Charter came into effect at the end of 2008, and now Asean leaders are talking about how to build a people-centered community to benefit all its 630 million residents. Their promise is being tested every single day as the deadline for the Asean

The current Asean chair, Malaysia, is struggling hard to manage such high expectations. In contrast, the previous chair, Myanmar, was fortunate as regional expectations then were much lower. That was the reason Nay Pyi Taw was given such a high mark.
As of now, Asean members have displayed different attitudes towards the AC deadline. Albeit their cautious optimism, they know wholeheartedly that the community-building has continued — in a slow but sure manner — since the establishment of Asean 48 years ago.  Therefore, to Asean leaders, December 31, will be an important date to mark the beginning of the grouping’s deeper all-round integration — not only the economic but the lesser known political/security and social/cultural spheres. 
Some Asean members even entertained the idea that these three pillars were not sufficient, that there should be a new pillar on environmental protection, given the presence of global climate change.
To their credit, without their economic progress, other forms of cooperation would be difficult to come by. Despite the positive assessment on political/security and social/cultural pillars from Asean members, the reality on the ground shows a different story. Asean leaders know they need extra political will to break through all barriers.
For the time being, the focus is on the elimination of behind-the-border (BTB) measures, which remain the biggest stumbling blocks to cross-border trade and opening up of marketplaces. 
However, if an additional political and cultural barrier (PCB) had been applied to assess the success of Asean cooperation, the outcome would be much lower. 
Sensitive issues related to human rights and democracy, freedom of expression, communal conflict, non-interference principles, cultural heritage, political dispute settlement are not discussed in official agendas. 
With no credible monitoring mechanism of the AC’s blueprints, Asean leaders have taken comfort from their own evaluations. The average scorecard is 82 per cent for all three pillars — meaning the remaining 20 per cent would be a tough nut to crack. Within Asean, some individual interests still reign, leaving the much-needed regional interest behind — in the process weakening Asean centrality. 
For its part, Kuala Lumpur has not yet decided whether to launch the AC during the 27th Asean Summit on November 19 or 21 when the grouping’s most important dialogue partners are scheduled to join the Asean leaders at the East Asia Summit. It is impossible to launch the AC at the end of the year. 
To mark this special occasion, several Asean members have set up an exclusive Asean lane at their international airports for Asean travellers. The gesture showing the enthusiasm and spirit among the group’s members. Most importantly, it gives a strong sense of belonging to Asean. Random interviews with Asean travellers queued up in the Asean lane in Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi and Bangkok over past weeks, showed a shared eagerness and pride in being part of the AC.
For the ordinary folks in Asean, particularly those who can afford to travel by air, the fresh sense of feel-Asean is something new and warranted. In the past, only Thailand indulged in the Asean lane, now nearly all Asean members have these Asean-only lanes. “I am from Asean” has become a more common response. 
Asean travellers — once outside their own comfort zone — are now gradually discovering a shared zone at border checkpoints. In the near future, when the AC is fully matured and integrated, Asean people will enjoy bigger comfort zones cross-cutting all aspects of day-to-day life. 
In the absence of an Asean identity due to the grouping’s cultural and linguistic diversities, only symbols, basic norms and values can be shared. With the charter, the grouping has agreed on the Asean day, Asean flag, Asean emblem and Asean anthem. In the case of the Asean flag, the grouping is still reluctant to fly the new flag at joint activities, such as in peacekeeping.
To increase awareness of Asean, the new Asean chair has already revisited some of the old ideas that would connect and instil a sense of Aseanness – such as the common Asean time zone, Asean business travel card and Asean common curriculum.
Asean must look beyond 2015. During the first three decades, there was a strong collective memory of Asean among its leaders, which translated into the more resilient grouping it is today. However, as Asean moves towards its jubilee celebration in 2017, it will need a broader and stronger collective memory coming from all walks of life, beyond the tenacity and perseverance of its leaders. Perhaps that is the only fertile ground from which an Asean identity can emerge.