As Asean moves toward a single community by the end of next year, it is time to ponder if this family of ten could be a recipient of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.
Asean has come a long way since its inception this month in 1967. Indeed, it has been a slow process, full of trial and error, to secure peace and prosperity in the region amid the fast changing strategic environment of yore and of the present time. Asean has survived and successfully turned the battlefield of Southeast Asia into a marketplace bigger than Europe.
When the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, the citation was short and powerful. The prize credited the EU for its contri?bution for over six decades “to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”.
Asean does have these criteria and accomplishments but they are not consistent and fully implemented. From the very first day of its founding, Asean leaders have worked together to ensure that peace will reign in Southeast Asia as stated in the 1967 Bangkok Declaration.
By the end of next year, Asean will be a community of 620-million citizens even though in reality it is still incomplete and its road has many potholes. This evolutionary process will proceed non-stop. Before Asean was founded, securing peace and prevention of war and conflict was the top priority. Since its establishment, Asean has worked tirelessly through consensus to ensure that no members would fight each other again and that all will lead a better livelihood together.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Asean was one of the key players in bringing peace and reconciliation to the region, which was torn apart by ideological and political conflicts. The more than a decade-old Cambodian conflict highlighted the group’s determination and perseverance to overcome challenges emanating from regional and global stages.
Nobody would ever imagine right after the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991, that Vietnam and Laos would become observers a year later. By 1999, all former Indochinese states were under one roof as full members. Since then, Asean efforts have been sought to bridge economic and developmental gaps between old and new members.
Today the process of economic integration continues unabated. The blueprint of the Asean Economic Community (AC) has served as a useful tool for all Asean members to follow in their transformation into a single market and production base. To compete with the rest of the world, Asean has to improve the level of each member’s playing field – and boost their ability to integrate both individually and collectively in the global economy. To go beyond 2015, Asean needs a clearer vision coupled with stronger political will.
As the deadline for the Asean Community approaches, the sense of “one community and one destiny” is gradually being absorbed. More years will be needed before the sense of belonging – ie. the Asean identity – becomes omnipresent as the member countries prepare to embrace the AC nexus. Within Asean, Thailand has been the most hyper in preparing for the AC due to its deep-rooted sense of inadequacy competing with other members, which are more measured in their approach to the AC.
Since the Asean Charter came into effect at the end of 2008, Asean has been transformed into a rule-based organisation with all universally recognised elements in place related to democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights. Five years have elapsed, but the level of compliance among Asean members over these collective purposes is still found wanting.
Asean has done well on the bread and butter issues but not in social justice and rights areas. So far, only individual efforts in Asean have been recognised. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition party leader of the National League of Democracy, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her democratic struggle in bringing reform to Myanmar. Other human rights defenders in Asean were also given international awards.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee will certainly eye Asean if the grouping has a better record on democracy and human rights. The committee must also realise that the peacemakers in our region are of the same quality as Western idealists, although they are less vocal. With Indonesia’s democracy strengthened and matured, Asean’s political reputation has increased. Thailand’s democratic backsliding, even temporarily, is a huge liability to the region given its long-standing democratisation process. As Myanmar continues economic and political reform efforts, albeit with some visible sluggishness, Asean’s overall democratic image has a much wider appeal than before. If Timor Leste, the world’s youngest democracy, successfully joins Asean next year, its democratic credentials will be further enhanced.
To get the peace prize nomination, Asean must have tangible provisions to protect human rights. More than 300 peace prizes are given out each year around the world but Asean has never made the grade. Lest we forget, Asean took 13 years to set up a human rights body – the last region to have such an institution. The Asean-based civil society groups have already urged the group to appoint its own human rights rapporteur, set up complaint mechanisms and cross-border probes to protect the rights of Asean citizens.
Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand are leading the way through promoting the role of national human rights commissions through reports, investigations and country visits.
Next month, members of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights will visit Bangkok at the request of the Thai government – the first of its kind – to look at the issue of migrant workers.
Such voluntary action contributes to much-needed confidence-building within Asean. It is a good practice that must be encouraged as it can be applied to other sensitive issues. Last year, Indonesia provided its human rights report for the scrutiny of Asean colleagues.
All told, Asean with a Nobel peace prize would boost its centrality and empower its capacities and capabilities to wage peace effectively in the region and beyond.