This month Indonesia celebrates its 72nd anniversary of independence. Millions of children around the archipelago will spend August 17 playing games in the neighbourhood, hosted by parents and older siblings, as a reminder of how far Indonesia has come in those 72 years and how much it has to celebrate.
This August also sees another occasion – the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Indonesia has played a leading role in the regional bloc for its entire existence and this landmark is a great time to assess the influence Indonesia has exerted and its future role.
With the Philippines acting as chair of ASEAN this year – a role which rotates each year – the August 8 anniversary was marked at the end of a Ministerial Summit. Foreign ministers from all ten ASEAN states attended, as well as from 17 other countries including China, the US and North Korea. Indonesia is now joined by the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand in making up the bloc.
But on August 8, 1967, the membership list was far shorter. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand teamed up in Bangkok to sign a declaration in solidarity against the communist surge then gripping the region. That fifty years later the ten member bloc would happily include communist Laos and Vietnam is a strong indicator of the overarching belief in regional unity over political and ethnic divides which marked much of the 20th century.
Indonesia’s then foreign minister, Adam Malik, serving from 1967 to 1977, was integral to the formation of the bloc. Born in North Sumatra in 1917, Malik was heavily involved in the independence movement during the Dutch occupation. He boasts an impressive CV, including the founding of news agency Antara and membership of a group which kidnapped future president Sukarno and vice president Mohammad Hatta to force them to declare independence.
The bizarre plot evidently worked and he was asked to serve as foreign minister under Sukarno. During the initial meeting, he described Indonesia’s foreign policy priorities as being:
“a region which can stand on its own feet, strong enough to defend itself against any negative influence from outside the region.”
He was joined at the initial summit with the Philippines’ Narciso R. Ramos, Malaysia’s Tun Abdul Razak, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam from Singapore and Thailand’s Thanat Khoman.
The group replaced the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), which had formed in 1961 and included just the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia. ASEAN has steadily expanded its membership list over the last 50 years to include Brunei in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, both Laos and Myanmar in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999. Timor-Leste has long been touted as the 11th member and a campaign, spearheaded by supporter Indonesia, is underway, despite the arduous process.
Singapore’s Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, who co-founded the People’s Action Party alongside late prime minister and regional heavyweight Lee Kuan Yew, best summed up the initial goals of the establishment of the bloc:
“We must think not only of our national interests but posit them against regional interests: that is a new way of thinking about our problems. And these are two different things and sometimes they can conflict. Secondly, we must also accept the fact, if we are really serious about it, that regional existence means painful adjustments to those practices and thinking in our respective countries. We must make these painful and difficult adjustments. If we are not going to do that, then regionalism remains a utopia.”
These 50 years have overseen some of the most tumultuous decades in history for both the world and the region. War, authoritarian dictatorships, violence and economic chaos have touched nearly every corner of Southeast Asia since that first Bangkok meeting.
But, with one of the youngest populations in the world and a wealth of untapped potential in resources and brainpower, many are confident the next 50 years will be one of prosperity.
So what are the issues we should watch for?
The South China Sea has occupied an increasingly vital position on the ASEAN agenda since a 1992 spat between then future member Vietnam and China over the disputed Spratly Islands. Following last year’s Hague Tribunal ruling in favour of claimant the Philippines against China, a concerted effort by Beijing to ‘divide and conquer’ ASEAN member states by using much needed infrastructure investment to pressure the watering down of official statements appears to have worked, with the most recent Joint Communique released on August 7 a pale impersonation of what it could have been a year earlier. But, this isn’t to say it will stay this way. With a potential resource boom tied up in the disputed waters, as well as erratic displays of nationalism from domestic governments, any ‘solution’ should be viewed as temporary particularly with a code of conduct still years away.
Labour rights, especially for migrant and domestic workers, will only gain more traction. Introducing a regional law on labour protections or pressure for greater enforcement of local laws has long been on the agenda for Indonesia and the Philippines – the two countries which send the most workers overseas. But, ASEAN’s need for full support and unity to back any statement means Singapore and Malaysia, which pull workers from elsewhere in the region and are resistant to acknowledging mistreatment, can sink any hard words.
Climate change has slipped off the agenda for Western leaders, but in ASEAN it’s becoming more and more important. With Indonesia expected to begin losing islands to rising sea levels by mid-century and South Asia predicted to experience record heat-waves, potentially forcing populations eastward into Myanmar, sensible sustainability practices and policies must be introduced to stem what could be the biggest natural disaster ever to hit the region.
Violence, conflict and terrorism have been on the agenda since the inception of the regional bloc. In the coming years, Islamic extremism, particularly based around the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, will likely continue to be dealt with in the straightforward and direct manner ASEAN has become known for.
Political violence and attacks on human rights, however, will probably not be treated so bluntly. It is here, when the criticism of other members is necessary, that ASEAN falters. Concerns about free elections in Thailand and Cambodia, an ever-rising body count in the Philippines’ war on drugs, Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, Vietnam’s crackdown on political dissenters and curbs on freedoms in Malaysia will likely continue to be ignored for the next 50 years – in order to keep the peace.