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Ties that bind

/ 01:20 AM September 25, 2015

FOR SEVERAL years now I’ve pushed for greater awareness of our Southeast Asian region, especially after reading the results of a survey conducted by political science professor Jaime Naval of the University of the Philippines where he found very low levels, among Filipino students, of knowledge about Southeast Asian countries.

I will admit, though, that I’ve had my reservations about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, sharing a widespread misconception that Asean was set up by the Americans to keep their influence going in the region.

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I’ve changed that perception over the last two years, after talking with Ambassador Rodolfo Severino Jr., a former secretary general of Asean, and Ambassador Delia Albert, who, as a young assistant to then Foreign Secretary Narciso Ramos, saw the establishment of Asean. Through the years, as a member of the diplomatic corps, she saw how Asean evolved.

Last month the UP Asian Center opened Asean Week with a symposium that featured Ambassador Albert as keynote speaker, giving her first-hand observations of how Asean evolved.

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From confrontation to cooperation

Asean was born during a time of regional tensions. Malaysia and Indonesia had bloody border disputes around Borneo, grimly termed as konfrontasi. The Philippines and Indonesia were also quarreling over Sabah.

It was, therefore, a bold move for five foreign ministers—Thanat Khoman of Thailand, Adam Malik of Indonesia, Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia, Rajaratnam of Singapore and our own Narciso Ramos—to agree to form a regional organization to get their countries to work together. There had been previous failed attempts: the ASA (Association of Southeast Asia), Maphilindo (Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia), and Seato (Southeast Asian Treaty Organization). Seato was a military alliance, pushed by the United States.

Ambassador Albert described how numerous meetings had to be held before the Bangkok Declaration of 1967 that formally established Asean. Ramos had told her that he was sure this attempt at a regional grouping would work because it was “ours”—meaning it was an initiative of the five countries rather than the superpowers’ meddling in the region.

Asean grew, with its original logo of a bundle of five rice stalks now containing 10. The countries that joined the five original members were Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma (Myanmar).

Ambassador Albert said it took 25 years of Asean stressing cooperation, before the members dared to think of integration. Asean has in fact been criticized for very slow movement despite many meetings. But the organization works that way because the countries are so different politically and culturally.

Asean integration

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Understanding Asean becomes even more important with the Apec (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation), which is composed of 23 countries in the Pacific Rim. The Philippines has been hosting a yearlong series of Apec meetings, to culminate in November with the economic leaders coming together… and providing a long holiday.

The Apec includes members of the Asean Economic Community, which has been moving toward economic integration by the end of 2015. Many of the goals may have to be postponed, but even now there have been protests against this economic community, arising from misconceptions about integration.

One of the fears has been about the free flow of labor, with visions of Filipinos losing their jobs as our Asean neighbors send in their own peoples. The reality is that dozens of organizations in Asean countries are carefully reviewing standards and the conditions for accepting professionals from other countries. I remember a session in a Philippine Pediatrics Society convention two years ago with a very detailed analysis of what integration would mean for pediatricians.

I actually suspect that Filipinos might be the ones to displace the labor market in other Asean countries because our professionals are so well-trained.

At the Asian Center symposium, there were representatives of various Asean countries’ embassies. Erna Herlina, first secretary and trade officer of the Indonesian Embassy, delivered a most informative talk describing Philippine-Indonesian ties. She talked about shared words in our languages, as well as archaeological findings showing contacts across the Philippine and Indonesian archipelagos.

She mentioned how our Jose Rizal and other Filipino revolutionaries inspired Indonesian nationalists.

Today, Indonesia looks to the Philippines for best practices in the area of overseas workers, because Indonesia’s experiences in this area have been more recent.

Herlina also surprised the audience when she talked about Indonesian companies in the Philippines, the most unexpected one being J Co, whose doughnuts are becoming more and more popular in the Philippines.

Timor Leste

Francisco Cepeda, the Ambassador of Timor Leste (East Timor) was also at the Asian Center and initially I had to run through the Asean list of members in my head, wondering if I had missed Timor Leste. I finally asked Ambassador Albert and she confirmed that it was not yet a member but was applying.

There are many ties that bind the Philippines and Timor Leste, mainly around the latter’s long struggle for independence, first against Portugal, which withdrew from Timor Leste in 1975, only to be followed by an Indonesian invasion and occupation and another protracted bloody struggle. A UN-supervised referendum resulted in a massive vote for independence, leading to the Indonesians withdrawing and Timor Leste declaring independence in 2002. Progressive Filipino groups supported Timor Leste during those difficult years—some of them even recalling how Filipino sisters would provide refuge and assistance to the pro-independence groups.

Today, we still have Filipinos in Timor Leste volunteering with civil society organizations, or bringing in business investments.

Timor Leste, incidentally, has a majority Christian population so the Philippines can no longer claim to be the “only Christian” or even “only Catholic” country in southeast Asia.

When I was first introduced to Ambassador Cepeda, my anthropological eye caught a butterfly tattoo on his hand. I tried to think of a way to ask him what its meaning was. Fortunately, the Turkish ambassador, Esra Cankorur, resolved the diplomatic dilemma by asking.

It turned out he was part of the independence movement. He had been arrested and imprisoned for his political involvement and, while in jail, his girlfriend would visit but they had to talk with a wall between them. The butterfly symbolizes the two talking with the wall in between.

Yes, they got married, and I hope we have diplomatic Asean functions in the not very distant future that she can attend—an expanded region with ties that bind.

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TAGS: APEC, Asean, Asia, countries, information, knowledge, opinion, Southeast Asia, Timor Leste
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