As 2015 ends with Malaysia wrapping up its Asean chairmanship and handing the torch over to Laos for the Aseab Summit 2016, we would like to highlight some noteworthy events that Southeast Asians faced this year that were good, bad, and in some cases, undecided. Here are some of them:
Myanmar’s first general election since Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest
One of the biggest news that emerged from this region was the success of the recent general election where the National League of Democracy, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, garnered more than 70% of the popular votes.
With Myanmar’s decades-long rule under the military junta at an end, this will surely be the dawn of a newly democratic Myanmar.
Nevertheless, there will be a lot of housekeeping for the new government, especially with the rise in Buddhist nationalism (see Ma Ba Tha), an apparent genocide on the Rohingya community and a constitution in serious need of a reboot.
China, India, Japan and the US eyeing Southeast Asia
As Southeast Asia becomes the seventh largest economy in the world with a combined GDP of US$2.5 trillion in 2013, the big guns are now eyeing Southeast Asia as their next investment hot spot.
With the establishment of the Asean Economic Community, leaders from large economic powerhouses such as the US, China, Japan and India have made their way to Malaysia to express their interest in trade in this region.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi upheld his “Act East Policy”, China’s Premier Li Keqiang came with his New Silk Road agenda and US President Barack Obama was busy with his Asia Pivot.
Asean is expected to raise its market competitiveness and improve its infrastructure and connectivity in the near future.
Transboundary smoke and Indonesia’s forest fires
Despite the success of the Conference of the Parties, or COP21, in Paris, climate change policy has taken a backseat in Southeast Asia with the looming forest fires in Indonesia and the transboundary smoke which plagued its neighbours Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand and southern Philippines.
Despite all countries in Southeast Asia ratifying the Asean transboundary haze treaty, the smoke has worsened and continues to occur on an annual basis.
Part of the problem is the unregulated slash-and-burn forest fires by palm oil and other plantation concessions. This crisis has been dubbed “a crime against humanity” by the global community.
Worsening human rights records
If there is one area in which Asean has continuously failed, it is human rights. Most of the Asean nations collapsed into the bottom pile in most of the global human rights rankings, such as the US Trafficking in Persons Report.
Despite having an Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, it has not been able to address significant human rights issues in the region.
Indonesia especially took a blow to its foreign policy when President Jokowi decided to proceed with the Bali Nine death penalty.
Asean was put under international pressure when it infamously played human ping-pong with boats filled with political refugees and economic migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
To top it off, Asean yet again found itself in the limelight when mass graves of human trafficking victims were discovered at the border between Thailand and Malaysia.
The TPPA, a game-changer for Asean
2015 has been a good year for Obama mostly due to the fact that the TPP deal was finally concluded, and it had a fairly successful year with Southeast Asia too.
Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Brunei are already members of the TPPA, and the membership may expand to the rest of Asean as countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines have expressed interest.
The TPP agreement will be a game-changer to free trade as areas such as intellectual property (IP), labour laws, and government procurements will be regulated strictly.
There would be an influx of big businesses which would inevitably change the dynamics of the existing local economy. Will this be a good or bad thing for Southeast Asia? We are undecided.
South China Sea dispute
If there is one chess game that Asean is desperately trying to navigate out of, it is the South China Sea dispute. Asean is cornered between a giant panda and a preying hawk. The South China Sea has become more than just a contest of maritime security, as the US is becoming increasingly involved in the geopolitical dispute.
The US government had lobbied hard on its stance against China on the issue. The Philippines has taken the issue to the Hague to uphold the UN Convention Law of the Sea over the Nine Dash Line, but China is insisting on a bilateral negotiation.
Meanwhile, Asean is careful at mitigating the tensions from escalating. Will this affect Asean’s relationship with China? Honestly, neither party will allow this to escalate into another Cold War. But you never know. Nor Arlene Tan, December 28, 2015.
* Nor Arlene Tan reads The Malaysian Insider.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.
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c/o Trade Union Congress of the Philippines
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