Will ASEAN be a community by 2015?

Orly Mercado

Posted on May 23, 2009

Recently, I was invited to speak before this year’s fellows of the South East Asian Press Alliance in Bangkok. After my talk, I stayed to listen to the afternoon session that featured an intelligent and articulate Thai academician who confidently declared, “ASEAN won’t be a community by 2015.” As a recently appointed Ambassador (Permanent Representative) of the Philippines to ASEAN, the remark caught my attention. After all, the new Charter that created the new post I now occupy is precisely aimed at creating an ASEAN community. In fact, the original target of 2020 was moved earlier to 2015. Personally, aside from advancing the interests of the country I represent, I consider efforts towards building this community as the real measure of my performance as a member of the Committee of Permanent Representatives. Is the objective attainable?

To create a community, we have to start by creating a “sense of community.” After forty years of existence, it may be safe to say that there is such a sense. But this mostly exists at the topmost levels of the populations of its ten member states. For most of some 560 million people living in economies at varying stages of development, ASEAN may be beyond its reach. In Pilipino we say “malayo sa bituka” (which literally means far connected to our intestines). Indeed, this vibrant regional organization has projects upon projects that are aimed at integrating the member states. But have they been able to project a discernible image that would create the empathy needed for a sense of belonging? Simply put, does ASEAN have a visible “face” or a “heart”?

ASEAN has not been totally lacking in this effort. The past interventions during the disaster in Nargis, Myanmar are a notable example. Today, all of this is buried in media’s interest in the unfolding drama surrounding Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. This posts a real challenge to ASEAN. But that is another story. What is needed is to launch sustainable projects that would directly touch the marginalized sectors of its population. It should involve the public and the private sector and mass media as well.

When I mentioned in a meeting here in Jakarta what I heard at the press forum in Bangkok, a diplomat reminded me: “Building a community is a process, we will see by 2015 at what stage we would be in that process.” This maybe so, but 2015 will not creep upon us. Not in this part of Asia.

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