Asean’s policy of noninterference
Classes and work may have been suspended in some parts of Metro Manila, but the city was abuzz with activity as it welcomed foreign heads of state and hosted the 31st Asean Summit and related meetings.
What with terror incidents managing to occur in even the most unlikely places around the world, extreme security was implemented by the authorities as world leaders settled down to discuss pressing issues affecting Southeast Asia and its 600 million people.
In participating in the summit, the leaders got a taste of the Filipino hospitality famous throughout the world. But beyond the glitter and the bright lights, the cultural performances and mesmerizing Philippine scenery lay a flurry of issues waiting to be discussed and resolved.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is aspiring to be an integrated economic powerhouse much like the European Union. Full-fledged integration means that the goods produced as well as the human capital of the 10 member-nations can flow freely from one to another. Terrorism is also of great concern to the region as no member-nation wants to endure anything close to what Marawi City experienced in the hands of extremists. Climate change is a focal point as the region relies heavily on its agricultural sector, which is easily dampened even by slight alterations in atmospheric conditions. To add to the magnitude of the issues, there is the prevailing nuclear threat posed by North Korea, which could easily reach Southeast Asia. Asean has openly condemned North Korea’s missile launches despite Pyongyang’s call for the region to stand by its side.
For all that, what proved troubling was the inability of Asean and its partners to discuss those matters that are considered “too hot to touch.” This is primarily due to the policy of noninterference that the bloc has embraced since its conception. In an article, Mieke Molthof wrote that “the noninterference principle, as it is interpreted today, still acts as a comparatively strong restraint on Asean’s behavior in regional affairs.” This was again proven true in the recent Asean Summit.
A case in point is the Duterte administration’s bloody war on drugs. Asean has affirmed that the drug problem seen in the Philippines is present not only in its member-states but also in countries outside the region. Nevertheless, Asean has stated that it would not interfere in the Philippines’ bloody drug war despite the outcry on extrajudicial killings and the abuses by both law enforcers and vigilante groups. Asean insists that it recognizes the sovereign right of a country to decide on the best approach to solve its own drug problem.
It is interesting to note that the only world leader with sufficient boldness to bring up the topic to President Duterte was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, whose country is only an Asean partner and not included in the 10-member regional bloc.
Another crucial talking point which Asean failed to formally discuss is the Rohingya refugee crisis which is plaguing Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar. An article from Al Jazeera describes the Asean Summit’s sparing of Suu Kyi from having to explain the matter as an “absolute travesty.” Suu Kyi has pleaded for patience from the international community, but as the Rohingya death toll continues to rise and more evidence of genocide is further uncovered, tolerance might be gone sooner than what the Nobel laureate would want.
The silence of Asean on this issue is especially troubling as this kind of ethnic cleansing is no different from Hitler’s determined effort to exterminate the Jews.
As incidences of human rights violations rise in the Philippines and as the Rohingya continue to be subjected to persecution, killing, torture, rape, arson and other abuses by the Myanmar military, Asean appears to look on, unmoving and ignorant, all for the sake of the policy of noninterference.
How long will this go on? It’s time for the 10-member regional bloc to ask itself whether remaining silent on or ignorant of one another’s internal affairs, no matter how troubling and unethical, will still be beneficial in today’s interlinked and interdependent world.
As Southeast Asia moves to realize its dream of becoming a fully integrated economic powerhouse, Asean can no longer sit idly by if one or more of its member-states fail to stop or turn a blind eye to violence and rights violations. Subtle rhetoric and mild commentary can only go so far, for words are impotent without action. This will only prove detrimental to regional progress and dash the hopes of its peoples for a bright future, a future free from oppression that the region has faced in its dark past, and a future brimming with opportunities for a better life.
It is not too late for Asean to get its act together, but it needs to start now. It must realize that if the rigid reading of its principle of noninterference will be allowed to prevail, it might deal the death blow for Asean itself.
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Enzo Miguel Malonzo De Borja, 16, is in Grade 11 at Pasig Catholic College.
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