The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), long regarded as a powerful regional pact that served as an independent voice for the region, ceased to be so on November 5 when its leaders caved in to western pressure.
Signs of disunity and the rich-poor divide surfaced when leaders of the ten countries in the region gathered for the summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, on November 5. They were expected to take a united stance on events since the attacks on the Pentagon and WTC on September 11. In the past, ASEAN has stood successfully on regional and transregional issues, such as the conflicts in Cambodia and the repression in Burma (Myanmar). Such unity is displayed, however, obviously only when the issue in question does not involve Muslims.
So, not surprisingly, the organisation, which supposedly represents 500 million people (more than half of whom are Muslims), failed to make a unanimous declaration to condemn the American military aggression against Afghan civilians, despite its Muslim populations’ strong condemnation of the air strikes. Like Israel in the Arab world, it was tiny Singapore that called the shots, rather than its giant Muslim neighbours Malaysia, Indonesia or Brunei, the tiny but wealthy colonial creation. Both Singapore and the Philippines have sided openly with the US on the strikes against Afghanistan.
Having the world’s most populous Muslim country and a “tough-talking Muslim leader” like Mahathir Mohamad were not of much help to sway the tone of the declaration either. Leaving the summit, Mahathir explained that only Indonesia and Malaysia had called for an end to the bombing campaign, while the others ignored the calls. He insisted that he brought up the issue of terrorism three times with the leaders, urging the summit to “identify the terrorists and define what terrorism is.”
In the end, ASEAN issued a meek declaration reiterating the familiar rhetoric: condemning the attacks on New York, vowing to fight terrorism but stopped short of even criticising the indiscriminate attacks on Afghanistan. Asked later why he did not persist in calling for a condemnation of the US military strikes, Mahathir replied: “We defer on this and we prefer not to insist on that because there were some differences in our views.”
To be fair, Mahathir has been quite outspoken, threading carefully to avoid angering either Uncle Sam or the Muslims back home, who are against the strikes. His performance is reasonable, coming as it did when he was desperately seeking to get back into the West’s good books. Most will agree that his standing at home improved a little after September 11, as happened to Colonel Qaddafi, whose popularity thrives on international crises. But most think his anti-west criticism this time was mild, and was made only out of fear of yet another domestic backclash because of the rocky Malay-Muslim support for his government. So whatever mileage he gets out of the current western air raids against Afghanistan may be temporary. Sharing this dilemma is his Indonesian counterpart, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who had to succumb to intense pressure from Muslims to condemn the airstrikes. Eager to get western support (Indonesia’s economy is still on life-support and had recently been awarded US$3 billion from the World Bank and others) Megawati had earlier even refused to criticise the US action. Now she is calling for an end to the bombardment.
But such calls from Muslim leaders, however secularised they may be (hence ‘credible’ in western eyes), fall flat in a region where western capitalist interests matter most. This is even so when the issue involves the west’s policies against Muslims. One only has to see the different reaction to the Indonesian rampage in East Timor and Aceh. In the case of the latter, there has not been any outcry.
Countries in this region, like the oil-rich Arab world, have always been politically servile to the west. Muslim public opinion does not count at all. This can be seen in the willingness of Singapore to allow American military bases in its territory, as well as diplomatic and military ties with the state of Israel, ignoring protest from its surrounding Muslim population. The Chinese-dominated regime has also not made secret its fear of Muslims’ voices gaining weight across the archipelago, lecturing its Muslim counterparts to stem this tide. But this state of affairs may well become a time-bomb and eventually turn the region into another Middle East.
In a way the ASEAN leaders have been left with little choice. Barring Indonesia and Thailand to a certain extent, all the ASEAN member states are essentially dictatorships and have got many skeletons in their closets. The Burmese regime have been brutally suppressing dissent, with little western outcry, as is also the case elsewhere; it is also ill-equipped to handle any terrorism issues. Manila is getting direct military help from the US in its campaigns against the Muslim heartlands; while Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are all ruled by police governments which cannot take the risk of hurting the west.
Ask the Malaysian prime minister: he once pointed his fingers at rogue Jews over the currency crisis; months later he had to issue an apology to Jewish lobbies in the US.