Asean day dreaming II

Asean day dreaming II

There was much enthusiasm over the establishment of the Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines – East Asean Growth Area (Bimp-Eaga) – back in the early 1990s, which was touted as the most promising growth triangle in Southeast Asia. However, it has since come to nothing.

The 1997 Asian financial crisis practically took the wind out of its sails, and exposed mercilessly that the so-called East Asian economic miracle was made of clay.

In fact, I had not heard of Bimp-Eaga for years, until early this week when Augustin Teras Narang, the Central Kalimantan governor, mentioned it in passing during his visit to Sabah and Sarawak.

The governor has a vision for a regional economic community fashioned on the successful European Union, and hopes the entire Borneo island would serve as a springboard to achieving just that.

Is it feasible?

asean meetingThere is no doubt that Asean has, over the years, developed into an economic force to be reckoned with. Today, it has a combined population of nearly 600 million, with a total GDP of almost US$180 billion, and still growing.

All the major regional economic powers – China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand – have free-trade agreement plans with the Southeast Asian grouping. China, in particular, has extended its co-operation with Asean to other areas such as politics and military.

However, Southeast Asia is, historically, also a hotly contested region for geo-strategic values. It has long been characterised by the twin threats of separatism and irredentism: the conflict in southern Thailand, the civil war in southern Philippines, as well as the various secessionist movements in many parts of Indonesia being grisly centerpieces.

Manila’s claim of sovereignty over Sabah and the sometimes bitter rivalry between Malaysia and Singapore, more often than not, impede further regional co-operation.

It must not be forgotten that it was British colonialism that managed to ‘unite’ the Malay peninsula. Prior to that, the many Malay sultanates had been at each other’s throats for centuries.

Following East Timor’s successful fight for independence in 1999, Jakarta has, understandably, been extremely cautious over similar demands from other territories with separatist movements or religio-ethnic unrest, such as Papua New Guinea, Moluccas, Sulawesi and Kalimantan.

This constant fear, again, further reinforces Jakarta’s siege mentality and makes it harder for Asean to fully realise its potential to become a closer politico-economic community.

oil exploration in south east asiaExternally, Washington has long had designs on the Straits of Malacca adjacent to Sumatra, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The Indonesian province of Aceh, in particular, has significant oil and gas reserves that have not gone unnoticed by all the major powers.

In the aftermath of the catastrophic tsunami in December 2004, the United States mobilised tens of thousands of troops in one of its biggest rescue operations in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Muslims in Southeast Asia.

It was a fruitful and impressive effort, but the US operation only laid bare the logistical incompetence of Asean members. Experts also believe the tsunami paved the way for foreign forces to set foot on Acehnese soil with a view to securing long-term presence there.

Foreign investors getting restless

Since then, foreign investors have been pushing Jakarta for further economic restructuring, including an end to rampant corruption and more openness in Indonesia’s legal and financial systems. It is no secret that many of the world’s leading oil companies are eyeing oil-rich Aceh, but things are still not moving as fast as they would like them to.

Aceh accounts for some 30 percent of Indonesia’s total oil and gas exports annually, and the exclusive rights granted by the Suharto regime to Exxon-Mobil, together with exploitation by other foreign companies, were a major source of friction between Jakarta and the province.

acehSince 2000, the successive Indonesian governments have been mindful of not repeating past mistakes, little wonder many foreign companies are unhappy with the slow progress in oil development in Aceh.

It would seem that quietly working up the nationalist and separatist sentiments of the Acehnese is now a way to remind Jakarta of what foreign influence could do to destabilise the province.

According to the opinions of various regional experts, the US and its western partners’ policy towards Indonesia is aimed at creating the necessary prerequisites for Aceh to resume its fight for independence.

To achieve this goal, western corporations purposely bankrupt and buy up, through men of straw, promising local companies and establish control over important industries like palm oil and oil and gas.

The ruling elite in Jakarta is also worried about the proactive stance of the various foreign NGOs working in Aceh on issues of human rights and democracy, fearing that their activism would rekindle the sparks of separatism.

It was this strong suspicion that prompted Jakarta to order all United Nation agencies, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to leave Aceh in 2005.

irwandi yusuf gabenor aceh 070207After all, the once powerful Gerakan Aceh Merdeka is still active on the ground, with many of its operatives now working at the local level since the peace deal was struck three years ago. They enjoy the support of one of its former leaders, Irawadi Yusuf, who is now the elected governor of the province.

When Teungku Muhammad Hasan Di Tiro, an icon of Aceh independence who had for decades resided in Europe and was granted Swedish citizenship, returned to the autonomous region recently, he was given a hero’s welcome by the Acehnese.

Under the peace deal, Tiro’s homecoming was inevitable, but it has nonetheless, raised fears that it could stir up separatist sentiments.

As laudable as Governor Narang’s idea is, Kalimantan faces its own ethnic problems that cannot be easily solved. Jakarta’s serious concern over national disintegration could therefore be a major hurdle in this respect.

It took two world wars before European leaders would appreciate the need for a cohesive and economically prosperous Europe, but no amount of effort, for now, would overcome once and for all the internal and external challenges confronting Asean in its quest for greater integration.

Malaysiakini article by  Josh Hong 

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