HANOI, Vietnam—Street vendor Ta Thi Huong has never heard of the “Asean Community” which Southeast Asian leaders spent two days last week trying to refine.
“Asean? I don’t know what it is,” says Huong, 40, who wears a traditional conical bamboo hat as she sells apricots on the streets of the Vietnamese capital Hanoi. “What community?”
Making the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) meaningful for the region’s 590 million citizens is one of the bloc’s challenges but observers say the vision faces even more fundamental issues.
Analysts say it is weighed down by wide development gaps within the region, entrenched domestic interests, and the perennial distraction of Myanmar’s failure to embrace democracy.
Focused on economic issues for most of its existence, Asean’s 10 members in 2008 adopted a charter committing them to tighter links.
The group aims to form by 2015 a “community” based on free trade, common democratic ideals, and shared social goals including a common identity.
Senior government officials admit that progress has been greatest in the economic sphere, while the political and social “pillars” of their community need strengthening.
“It’s easy to have a harmonization of interests on the economic sphere,” said Christopher Roberts, an expert in Asian politics and security at the University of Canberra.
But he said that creating a cohesive community was a task better carried out over decades and that the 2015 goal was unrealistic.
Political, security, and human rights issues are “the real point of contention” between the very diverse group of countries, Roberts said.
Asean’s membership ranges from communist Vietnam and Laos—one of Asia’s poorest nations—to the Westernized city-state of Singapore, the absolute monarchy of Brunei, and the vibrant democracy of Indonesia.
Other members are Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and military-ruled Myanmar.
An Asean summit in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi which ended Friday was again overshadowed by Myanmar, and by protests in Bangkok which prevented Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva from attending.
Thailand’s long-running political drama is among the domestic issues within Asean nations which are distracting it from moving forward collectively, analysts say.
The group has been divided over how to respond to Myanmar, which is under United States and European Union sanctions.
But on Friday it urged Myanmar to ensure that this year’s planned elections, which have been boycotted by the opposition, are fair and include all parties.
“You talk of a community, it means that there must be some degree of commonality within the region but as you know Asean is made up of countries of varying nature,” said Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.
“Economically less so, but certainly in the political area, we have different political systems working in our neighborhood.”
He said that should not be a problem as long as everyone is committed to the same universal principles including human rights and democracy.
At their summit, foreign ministers fleshed out their vision of a rules-based regional community by signing a protocol to help member nations resolve conflicts.
Scarred by wars in the 1960s and 1970s, Southeast Asian nations have largely lived peacefully together for at least two decades, but smaller-scale conflicts and sovereignty disputes persist.
Cambodia and Thailand have been locked in nationalist tensions and a troop standoff over a disputed temple on their border since July 2008. Soldiers have died on both sides.
Although Asean has helped the region avoid war and has allowed its members to get to know each other better, it “has not been really effective” on bilateral issues like the Thai-Cambodia dispute, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“It comes down to national interest, some members, they are not willing to rely on Asean… so at the end of the day the term ‘community’ is rather superficial,” he said.
Ahead of the summit, Asean took another step toward building the social aspect of its community with the inauguration of a commission to address the rights of women and children.
Natalegawa, who says the Asean Community cannot be fairly compared with the much longer-established European Union, said one of group’s challenges is how to make a difference in ordinary people’s lives.
If it can do that, Huong, the Hanoi apricot seller, will take notice.
“I will like it if it makes our country better,” she said, laughing. –Ian Timberlake, Agence France-Presse
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