Asean must handle thorny issues with maturity

opinion February 11, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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Raising old issues and reopening old wounds will only bring about greater discord and hurt unity within the community

Asean members are creating more problems among themselves, threatening to undermine the spirit and sense of community they say they want to help build in the coming years.
The historical anguish dividing Thailand and Cambodia has never been resolved. The two neighbours have only recently returned from battle in the World Court and have yet to find time to further discuss the dispute over the Preah Vihear Temple. Asean is still struggling to find solutions for the territorial conflicts in the South China Sea.
Singapore and Indonesia, meanwhile, reopened an old wound when the former raised objections to the latter’s navy naming a new frigate KRI Usman Harun in honour of two marine commandos who bombed Singapore nearly 50 years ago. 
That happened a half century ago, before Singapore became a modern state. Jakarta commissioned the commandos to infiltrate Singapore during Indonesia’s confrontation with Malaysia.
Then-president Sukarno had opposed the formation of Malaysia, of which Singapore was then a part, from September 1963 to August 1965, because he considered it a puppet state of the British. 
Osman Haji Mohamed Ali and Harun Said were found guilty for bombing McDonald House, a high-rise building in Singapore, on March 10, 1965. The explosion killed three people and injured 33 others. 
The marines were executed in Singapore in 1968 but were revered in their home country and given state funerals at the Kalibata Heroes Cemetery in south Jakarta. The incident soured relations between the two countries for years.
When the new warship was named after the two marines, Singapore’s Foreign Minister, K Shanmugam, last week expressed his country’s concerns to his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen of Singapore then did likewise with their respective counterparts, asking Jakarta to take into account the feelings of the victims.
The Indonesian government said it stood by the decision to honour the two national heroes, shunning any intervention by other countries. The KRI Usman-Harun 359 is one of three British-made corvettes expected to enter service in June, pending the commissioning process in the United Kingdom.
Indonesian navy chief spokesman Commander Untung Surapati said the decision to name the ships after the commandos was the result of long deliberations. Combat ships were usually named after national heroes, such as Diponegoro, Yos Sudarso and Ahmad Yani, he said.
Singapore retaliated by cancelling invitations to 100 Indonesian Armed Forces officers to attend the Singapore Air Show starting today. The war of words continues.
This kind of row has long been normal for countries around the world that have fought over the formation of sovereign states. The national heroes of one country are often the hated enemies of the neighbour. Whenever any side raises the issue of historical grief, there is every possibility of a conflict widening and likely affecting overall relations. These unsavoury developments should be strictly avoided during the process of building the Asean community.
Although there are no clear-cut solutions, the best way to build a sense of Asean community is to avoid such situations. National memory should be confined within the boundaries of individual states. 
A member of Asean should not be bothered by whomever its neighbour praises as a hero.