EDITORIAL ASEAN at 50 and beyond
THE next few days the international community will be focused on ASEAN as the Philippines chair hosts a series of summits with all the major powers. It is a time to look back and look forward.
ASEAN has come a long way since its establishment in 1967. The past half-century could be considered a period of constant trial and error. That helps explain why ASEAN is a very dynamic organisation and continues to balance national interests with collective bargaining. So far, so good. However, a frequently asked question is whether the group can survive in the next 50 years doing the same things in the same way. Something has to change.
Indeed, it must be said right now that it is a tall order to sustain such a delicate balance among its members, rich and poor, new and old. Given their diverse geographical locations, interests and political systems, it will take time for the members to achieve a consensus. Sometimes, the lack of a consensus has been portrayed as a sign of disunity among members. Actually, that is not the case. ASEAN continues to agree and disagree on a wide range of issues. There were many cases in which minority voices allowed majority ones to proceed. The so-called minus-x formula could be widely applied in the future to speed up decisions on sensitive issues.
It is not surprising that when critics reflect on ASEAN, they automatically say the bloc is a talk shop and weak, and, therefore, is not a force to be reckoned with in international politics. Interestingly, for ASEAN watchers the group’s weakness represents at certain times hidden strengths. Every major power would like to engage with ASEAN because it has legitimacy and resiliency.
ASEAN can be strong when it takes a united stand. Obviously, ASEAN’S positions are visible on important issues that mean life and death. For instance, on nuclear proliferation, ASEAN sees eye-to-eye with other nations on the overall nuclear threat. That is why US President Donald Trump approached ASEAN in April to work together on bringing pressure to bear on Pyongyang. Although North Korea has good ties with ASEAN members, the group has not hesitated to condemn the hermit kingdom’s nuclear attitude.
However, for the next 50 years, the most important element determining the fate of ASEAN and its relevancy will be its peoples’ support and strong sense of belonging. At the moment, the so-called ‘ASEAN dividend’ and opportunities have not yet permeated all aspects of ASEAN society. If this trend persists without any rectification, frustration among the disadvantaged or excluded groups will grow, possibly leading to an outbreak in the region of “Brexit” syndrome. At the moment, ASEAN integration is still incomplete. ASEAN policymakers can refocus and put more energy into people-centred action plans, making sure that the ASEAN Community is a people’s project.
From now on, more and more young people in ASEAN will influence the group’s future. Youths coming from each member country have different skills and abilities.
It is imperative for all of them to join forces, synergise their visions and turn them into reality.
Most of the parties register first and then launch campaigns, but you have already started public exposure and opened offices even before naming the party. What is your strategy?
Our political belief is to start implementing from the very fundamental level after gathering opinions… at the grass-roots level. The normal procedure is: if you have 15 persons, you can register your party. After being registered, you can put up the signboard and organise. That is the normal procedure. For us, before the party is officially launched, we have started organising in many towns.
Do you believe these moves will make the party known better?
We already have a network. Our comrades 30 years ago in the 1988 demonstration are in all towns. But we aim for wider participation. We also seek the participation of generations before (88 Generation) and after.
People see 88 Generation and the National League for Democracy as the same. Now you are going to establish a separate party. So what are the challenges?
Actually we have joint activities with NLD, especially in other towns. Many 88 Generation members are NLD party members too. Some are working for civil society organisations (CSO) or non-governmental organisations (NGO). But if they had to choose a party, there was nothing but NLD.
We may share some principles of the NLD and other existing parties such as in the setup, manifesto, multiparty system, federalism, market economy, and others, but not in every respect. For example, how do you think about the peace process? What do you think about the Rakhine issue? On some of these issues there will be differences in perspective and opinions. We will tell the public our opinions, our stand on every issue.
I wonder how you will distinguish yourselves from NLD.
At present, the general characteristics will not differ. If a multiparty system is actually established, each and every party has to compete. That is democracy.
We can distinguish ourselves by how much we fulfil the expectations of the people. When we implement our plans and goals, we need more action and we need more publicity.
When 88 Generation declared its intention to form a party, some supported it but some criticised that it should instead help NLD. What is the motivation behind your decision to form a party?
When we reviewed our experience, we decided to enter into politics. Among our comrades, there were arguments. Actually, there were suggestions to form a party, especially at the 25th anniversary of the 1988 demonstrations. It may take 3 or 4 years for a party to become established. We have to struggle a lot to make it.
Party offices were opened in Bago, Ayeyarwady and Yangon. Why did you choose those regions?
It mainly was based on active members. We started with areas where we have strongholds. You have sought suggestions from residents since April. What did they suggest?
The most fundamental one is non-discrimination – accepting people regardless of race, religion, sex and wealth. The second is democracy and human rights, which was one of our goals in the ’88 demonstrations.
Ethnic people talked about equal rights and a federal union. Also, people want protection and promotion of worker and farmer rights.
A free and fair market economy is our policy. In international relations, we aim for peaceful cooperation with all countries. These are the principles of our new party.
There is an 88 Generation peace and open society working as a CSO. Is there any rule that one has to quit from that organisation to join party?
No, but NGOS cannot participate in the election campaign of a party.
You are playing a key role in the formation of the party, but we don’t see the participation of other 88 Generation leaders like Min Ko Naing.
Min Ko Naing himself has said he has a passion for literature and art more than politics. When we decided to form a political party, Min Ko Naing agreed that those who are keen to do politics would do politics and those who are keen to work for the CSO would remain at the CSO.
When discussions on setting up the party began, Ko Mya Aye was also involved. Why did he stop?
To establish a political party took many years and many discussions because we want all to participate. We don’t prohibit anyone from participating
In a dictatorship, the government is not chosen by you. You don’t have a choice. In a democracy, the public has many choices.