There was a great elephant in the room at the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Though the region’s leaders spoke about peace and co-operation, the fact remained that Cambodia and Thailand are at each other’s throats.
There was a whopping great elephant in the room at last weekend’s annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta. Though the region’s leaders spoke, as they do, about peace and co-operation, the sad fact remained that Cambodia and Thailand, two of ASEAN’s 10 constituents, are at each other’s throats.
The breakdown of relations between Phnom Penh and Bangkok – the outcome of months of border skirmishes over a disputed temple – has plunged ASEAN into an existential crisis. The organisation’s critics have long complained that it is nothing more than a talking shop. But even talking shops serve an important purpose: they encourage leaders to meet in person, to shake hands, and to air their grievances over lunch rather than through military action. If nothing else, ASEAN was there to keep the peace.
ASEAN’s failure to perform this most basic function in the Thai-Cambodian case has raised serious questions about what the organisation actually does. Southeast Asia is a region with a proud history of non-intervention; its philosophy, the “ASEAN Way”, emphasises a go-lightly approach to international relations. Those in Europe who loathe EU red tape no doubt dream of a regional body that treads so softly. But ASEAN has gone to the opposite extreme: it treads so softly that it has no discernible influence on important events, even those in its own backyard.
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