The ASEAN summit in Jakarta was overshadowed by the ongoing Thai-Cambodian border disputeImage: dapd
ASEAN's economic integration plan at stake
May 9, 2011
Tensions between countries in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) region and the apparent inability of the bloc to deal with disagreements could derail plans to create a single economic community by 2015.
On Sunday, Southeast Asian leaders failed to achieve any breakthrough in attempts to end border disputes between Thailand and Cambodia that overshadowed a regional summit in Jakarta, which was supposed to showcase progress towards economic integration.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono repeatedly called for ASEAN unity during the summit, but intense efforts by Jakarta, including proposals to send Indonesian military observers to the disputed areas, did not bridge the gap between Thailand and Cambodia.
"ASEAN leaders wish both countries to choose a peaceful solution, prevent the conflict escalating, and redouble efforts to avoid fighting between the two armies," Yudhoyono said at the summit's closing news conference.
In the end, all that was achieved was a face-saving announcement that the Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers would stay an extra day in Jakarta for more talks.
The two sides have spoken plenty of times in recent weeks, but so far no resolution has been reached on the clashes over ownership of a small patch of territory surrounding Preah Vihear, an 11th-century Khmer temple. Clashes since early this year have already killed 18 people and displaced 85,000.
Thai elections complicate dispute
Mediation efforts by current ASEAN chair Indonesia have so far yielded few concessions that could lead to a lasting solution.
ASEAN has a policy of non-interference in each other's domestic affairs, and so has struggled to resolve the border dispute which - although on the surface is about ownership of land surrounding the ancient Preah Vihear temple - is also driven by domestic political dynamics in both Thailand and Cambodia.
With Thai elections approaching, the border issue is seen as one which Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva can try to use to unite and rally Thais behind him. The Thai Prime Minister told Reuters on the sidelines of the summit that he would go to the polls on July 3, but insisted that he was not looking to score political points.
"The ultimate objective must be to achieve lasting peace, so that both our peoples can live peacefully side-by-side along the Thai-Cambodian border," he said in a press briefing.
ASEAN's credibility at stake
The ASEAN leaders have struggled to engage the region's 500 million people in a project to build an economic community with free movement of people and goods by 2015.
"If the Cambodia and Thailand situation gets worse, then I'm afraid they might have to postpone it to 2020 or even put it on hold," said Enrico Tanuwidjaja, an analyst at OSK-DMG Group in Singapore.
Previous meetings have often been overshadowed by controversy over member Myanmar. International pressure on ASEAN is also expected to mount now that Myanmar has announced it wants to chair the group in 2014 despite allegations of ongoing human rights abuses and doubts over democratic reforms, including an election last year that was widely regarded as a sham.
"The key issue is ASEAN credibility -- it must move toward being more specific about how it will define whether it is achieving its self-defined goals for regional economic, social-cultural and political security integration," Ernest Bowe, ra US-based Southeast Asia specialist, told AFP.
The summit's final statement said that Myanmar's request was being considered, although President Yudhoyono said there would be no objection if Myanmar continued making progress towards democracy.
Author: Sherpem Sherpa (Reuters, AFP) Editor: Anne Thomas