Myanmar TIMES by Roger Mitton
18 February- The sages said the Year of the Monkey would be lively, unpredictable and even mischievous, but few expected the fantasyland funny business to start so quickly.
Rarely, if ever, has this region witnessed so many surprising and often downright quirky developments as it has in the past couple of weeks.
In hindsight, the signs were evident last month, when the leadership conventions in Laos and Vietnam, normally so staid and predictable, stunned everyone.
When Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made a much-anticipated bid to become boss of the ruling Vietnam Communist Party, he was brutally cut down by disaffected party cadres who voted en masse against him.
Dung was so shamed that he initially cancelled his scheduled trip to attend this week’s Sunnylands Summit of ASEAN leaders in the United States and was ready to send his deputy instead, until party elders ordered him to go.
There were equally startling changes in Laos, where the party chief and prime minister were both dumped and replaced by reformist figures who are more open and internationalist in outlook.
That cheered those who hope Laos, as this year’s ASEAN chair, will curb its usual pro-Beijing slant and perhaps help mediate some middle-ground accord with China to regulate conduct in the South China Sea.
Sure, it’s unlikely. As Stanford University’s Asian expert Don Emmerson said, “That goal has become an institutionalised mirage, invoked hopefully year after year in ASEAN communiqués to no meaningful avail.”
It was invoked again on February 16 at the strange Sunnylands shindig hosted by President Barack Obama.
The event was where this year’s real monkey business began, and to understand why, it pays to peruse some of the bizarrely disparate opinions expressed about the value of the leadership conclave.
To begin with, many struggled to comprehend why Obama, who is keen to make his last year in office a productive one, took time to host a bunch of guys he’d just met three months ago in Kuala Lumpur and Manila.
What was the purpose? A nice photo op for posterity? Actually, even the photos were diminished, given that President U Thein Sein did not attend.
Still, purpose or not, the event was touted as the greatest thing for regional relations since Washington avoided repeating then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s infamous snub of ASEAN in 2005.
Back then, Rice decided she had more important things to do than fly halfway round the world to take part in photo ops and song-and-dance routines with foreign ministers from small Southeast Asian nations.
She was right. But the region’s leaders took the snub badly and Obama has spent the past seven years trying to make amends.
Sunnylands was supposed to prove he has succeeded, although the gathering merely reiterated superficial expressions of chumminess and did not embellish either side.
One trenchant analysis of the event was written by Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, who called his artlcle “Obama’s Sunnylands Summit: Does ASEAN Really Matter?”He appears to think it does not.
And it was hard to disagree with him when he sliced apart the old wishful thinking of other ASEAN-centric analysts who had tried to argue that Sunnylands was a reaffirmation of a regional strategic partnership.
It was not. And Manning was right when he said it was delusional to portray ASEAN as a viable collective body that has more than a marginal role in the region’s political and security setup. It does not.
If the group’s key bodies like the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit were eliminated tomorrow, no one would notice and the region would remain just as safe.
As Manning said, to view ASEAN as anything more than “a loose coalition of disparate nations, economies and cultures is to buy into its own fantasyland narcissism”.
Talking of fantasyland: The much touted ASEAN Economic Community, launched on January 1, has changed our lives, right?
Wrong. They said it would consolidate trading rules, allow free movement of workers and introduce a single market for goods and services. All a pipe dream. Nothing has happened and nothing will for years to come.
If you think this is unduly pessimistic just check out another analysis by Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, who also skewered this week’s fantasyland summit.
His article, “The Dark Heart of ASEAN”, was even more devastating than those by Manning and others, for he argued that by hosting the ASEAN leaders, Washington allowed its interests to overwhelm its principles.
He noted that since the US pivot to Asia in 2011, the region’s political systems have regressed significantly, as best shown by Thailand’s sad slide “from flawed democracy to military rule”.
Just as poignant has been the way Malaysian democracy has been stunted by the jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the repression of critics and the financial shenanigans of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Cambodia was headed toward a two-party democracy after the 2013 general election, but since then Prime Minister Hun Sen has forced opposition leader Sam Rainsy into exile and cracked down on other critics.
As for Brunei, Laos and Vietnam, Kurlantzick calls them “among the most repressive states in the world, with no evidence of political opening at all”.
Only in Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines has democracy and civic society advanced in any way; the rest of the region is going backward.
It is no exaggeration to say that this anti-democratic regression lies at the dark heart of ASEAN.
Until this changes, the grouping really will not matter – and nor will any silly Sunnylands summits held in the future.