I am a German citizen who is currently studying abroad at SRU Bangkok, Thailand. My actual study is International Logistics Management at the Stenden Hogeschool in the Netherlands. In the Stenden’s study profile you have the opportunity to take part in the Grand Tour in your third year of study. Since Asia is a part of the world which is very interesting to me, because of the simple fact that I have never been there, I wanted to go to Asia and gain more experience and intercultural competences. The Grand Tour offers a number of destinations around the world for students to study abroad, and Thailand was one them. When I found that we have the possibility to go to Thailand I was directly interested in the courses they are offering. After I talked to my study coach who was promoting the IPaDS (International Politics and Diplomatic Studies) module I was thinking about taking this course and at the same time taking the chance to go an Asian country. Even though the IPaDS course had nothing to do with my actual study I was sure that this semester can really help me to enlarge my knowledge and simply do and learn something different. Due to the fact that this semester was focusing a lot on politics and International Relation it is quite obvious that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was also a major part of our study. Especially, during the second module we were focusing much more on ASEAN to see how it works as a regional entity and which obstacles it has for the future. Since I am European citizen, I already started to compare the EU as regional entity with ASEAN the regional entity of Southeast Asia. Out of a western perception I already noticed that several things are not really working or even not at all and ASEAN seems to be rather ineffective. Thereby I asked myself if, ASEAN as regional entity is working or not and if it has a future?
Cultural differences – Cultural differences arise through different religions, because religion is a major aspect of culture. In the Southeast Asian nations is a high diversity of religion. For example the majority of Thailand is Buddhist (93%); the majority of Indonesia for example is Muslim (87%) whereby the Philippines most widespread religion is Christianity (92%). [1. http://en.reingex.com/ASEAN-Religion.shtml] Due to the fact that religion is a basis of values and norms of a country and is partly dictating what is right or wrong you have already for those three countries huge differences in the perception on certain things.
Internal issues – Another aspect is internal conflicts which hinders ASEAN to work effectively. If you take in consideration that every country has to deal with internal conflicts which are so different to each other it shows how different and inhomogeneous they are. For example Thailand where martial law is just declared has now to deal with forming a government which will at least last for a year, due to the leader of Thailand’s military. So Thailand’s main focus will now lay on political reconciliation and reforms for the next 12 months, before the army perhaps promotes new elections. [2. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27642971]
Myanmar has another challenge to deal with. It has to fight against the poverty. Poverty rate is about 30% of the people which are living below the poverty line. It is very important for Myanmar to generate growth in sectors where poor people are living and working and this is mainly agriculture. [3. http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/2013/06/06/myanmar-progress-inevitable-biggest-challenge-is-poverty-un-development-chief-says/]
Singapore on the other hand has problems such as the slowing growth of its economy or the inflation. Singapore’s GDP growth rate is fluctuating for many years already. [4. http://www.tradingeconomics.com/singapore/gdp-growth] This might be caused by the development of the other countries in Southeast Asia which opened up greater markets by which Singapore lost its ‘monopolies’ on certain things.
The difference in internal issues is also a sign for the huge development gap between ASEAN member countries. According to the big differences on internal issues you can also see how the stability of country differs. Perhaps, every state should first solve their major issues to become more homogenous in order to improve ASEAN’s efficiency.
Compromising – In regional entities the most important aspect is to come up with agreements, resolutions etc. So when it comes to agreements where countries have to vote for one side or the other countries might also face to compromise on something. But compromising could be a big issue for leaders of the member countries, since compromising could mean cutting out some expectations or stating that others are right. This results in losing face which is a cultural issue for Asian people who are not used to it. But the actual result then would mean that they are not coming to an agreement, since no one wants to lose face. The only chance then is that every country is giving up something in order to
compromise, but if one country is not it might not work. The Preah Vihear temple dispute is a prime example where two member states are already fighting for more than a century about a territory. After the ICJ granted the temple to Cambodia in 1962 the still ongoing conflict between Thailand and Cambodia escalated in 2008 when Cambodia applied for being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage. [5. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-12378001] On the 11th November 2013 the United Nations International Court of Justice decided that Cambodia has sovereignty over the whole territory of the Preah Vihear temple and Thailand is obliged to withdraw its military forces. [6. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=46461&Cr=court+of+justice&Cr1=] In this case where two countries were arguing and partly fighting for a certain territory and temple has shown that Thailand lost face by the decision pro Cambodia and not even once. Those international conflicts can definitely hindering the progress of ASEAN as a regional entity.
Conclusion – Finally, when you take the just 3 mentioned parts into account you can already see why it is difficult for ASEAN to unify. Especially, the diversity of the member states in terms of religion and culture shows how different the perception on things can be. When compromising comes besides this aspect you easily can get stuck during discussion, since the perception of the leaders differ so much from each other and no one is willing or open to change their perception. Furthermore, the fact of internal issues is also a major part of why ASEAN is not working as efficient as it could. The greater internal conflicts are the greater are the own interests which leads to less interest in unifying goals of ASEAN. In order to become a better regional entity ASEAN member states need to change certain aspects on their perception towards specific things such as Thailand has to start acknowledging that the territory around the Preah Vihear temple belongs to Cambodia. Additionally, by choosing to change their perception ASEAN member states could aim for a common goal but at the moment it is not conceivable that these things will change any time soon. According these aspects and the actual status of ASEAN, ASEAN as a regional entity is not working at all, since it seems that member countries are much more focusing on their own interests instead of creating a unifying goal within Southeast Asia.