Rejection to the Rohingyas: Reimagining the Law, With or Without A Pandemic

By Alifa Salsabila, SH (Picture: The Diplomat)

“Unaccepted where they are, unable to return whence they came” by Leon Gordenker (1987, p. 213) is articulating what had just happened in Malaysian maritime territory on April 26, 2020. The situation depicted the Rohingyas refugees and asylum seekers feeling Myanmar trying to reach Malaysian shores were denied entry to the country and sent back to the sea, which later was “received” by Bangladesh authorities. The rejection was based on the country’s consideration of pandemic, which resulted in the “fear of Covid-19 infection,” as the Malaysian officials said. Unfortunately, the attention of a pandemic and the excuse of fear of the infection could not justify and eliminate the Malaysian international responsibility to this international humanitarian issue and justify its indecorous and inappropriate action to the Rohingyas.

Arguably, refugees and asylum seekers are the living individuals whom the international community is committed to safeguarding, for the sustain of “jus cogens.” In international law, jus cogens is often interpreted as a compelling norm and is considered to have the highest position or primary source of norms governing international relations. This concept gives rise to the view that there are norms in international law that cannot be excluded under any circumstances (Brownlie, 1998, p. 515) so that in the event of conflict whereas jus cogens and other norms meet, the norm that has the degree of jus cogens must be the first and foremost prioritized one without questioning other stances such as whether different norms are more specific than the jus cogens ones (Saraswati, 2017, p. 166).

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

On the very basis, asylum seekers are individuals who seek international protection based on particular reasons, consideration, and have not yet been granted any statuses of asylum. Meanwhile, refugees are people who, by and under international (refugee) law, are granted the status of “refugee” after being forced to flee their home country due to safety and life-threatening persecutions that endanger their lives and well-being based on specific reasons limited only to persecutions based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion which transform “them” into becoming the international community’s responsibility and put them monitored under the international legal regime. The status of “refugee” articulates a failure that the home country performs: the inability or unwillingness to provide a good, decent living environment and protection for people who once were their national responsibility. Hence, refugees are struggling to find other kinds of protections just to survive the harsh life they have been experienced. And morally speaking, this kind of protection is what the international legal regime creates to provide and is being demanded by the international community: international protection to the refugees and the asylum seekers. But, the cases of refugees and asylum seekers like Rohingyas are being rejected due to a fear of infection, another failure then evidently arises in the realm of the international community.

“The Rejection Over Fear” and “Obligation to Proper Responses”

An expert explains, “pandemics of infectious disease are not just events in which some infectious ‘bug’ spreads throughout the world. Pandemics are events in which the population’s psychological reactions to infection play an essential role in both the spreading, containment of the disease, and influence the extent to which widespread emotional distress and social disorder occur” (Taylor, 2019, p. 2). In other words, it is very natural for people to worry about their health, safety, and well-being in the face of a pandemic and perform different behavior from the normal standards which are driven by their psychological forces in a pandemic. But critically speaking, with or without a pandemic, are not these things the small parts of human nature that refugees and asylum seekers perform? They are solely struggling to survive the life itself.

Many people outline domestic problems such as security, economies, and cultures when taking in refugees and asylum seekers. But not many have outlined its international framework and how it is supposed to be under the international legal regime. International law is demanding the international community to provide international protection as its global responsibility.

But theoretically speaking, the failure to respond fleeing refugees coming to territories of other sovereigns is, most of the time, determined by “the political and international nature of the problem” (Haddad, 2008, p. 3). Consequently, this situation is adding another failure to the existing one with the country’s inability and unwillingness to protect the refugees and the asylum seekers at the very first place. International protection, hence, becomes the most needed response to fill in the absence of national protection, for at the very least, until a new nationality is obtained.

International Responsibility

In international law, responsibility is divided into “liability” and “answerability.” As liability, responsibility is understood as an entity that has violated its obligations and becomes liable to be held responsible by receiving “negative response” such as “punishment, censure, or enforced compensation,” and as answerability, responsibility is explained as “not necessarily imply that a wrong has been done since a person may respond to a charge by offering a valid justification for their conduct, thereby deflecting any imputation of wrongdoing” (Janmyr, 2013, p. 105).

International Protection

International protection can be understood through various interpretations and standards. But generally speaking, as being defined by the UN Security Council, “protection” can mean physical protection, legal protection, general assistance, or “protection by publicity” which at the end of the day, it makes international protection can be understood as a protection that sets out a common ground of protection to the well-being of the protected.

The Rohingyas, Malaysia, International, and ASEAN Community

The Rohingyas are a Muslim, ethnic, minority group residing in Rakhine State, Western Myanmar (Mohajan, 2018, p. 19) bordering Bangladesh. Not only the life of the Rohingyas are put at stake, but it is also learned that the term “the Rohingyas” alone, which refers to this particular minority group sharing the same identity, has been disputable since the very beginning of the Rohingyas presence in the country. For Myanmar’s government and most of the citizens, the Rohingyas are referred as “Bengalis,” which identifies the origins of Rohingyas as laborers and merchants who were migrating from India to Myanmar in the nineteenth century under the British colonial rule and making them, the Rohingyas, is then believed to be “illegal immigrants” (Southwick, 2018, p. 119) residing in Myanmar.

Malaysia, as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is also tied to the burden and responsibility to respect the ASEAN Community. By rejecting entry to the Rohingyas, who were not able to choose where they were heading to only to seek sanctuary, arguably, Malaysia is also neglecting the ASEAN Community itself.

As a matter of fact, the refugee movements of the Rohingyas in the ASEAN region are not a “new problem” in ASEAN Community. Yet, none of the focuses of the ASEAN Community has ever really touched the urgency to solve this “problem” of persecutions to the Rohingyas. On the other hand, Myanmar, as the home country of the Rohingyas as well as a member of ASEAN, insists on keeping the matters of the Rohingyas as domestic and internal, which implies the manner of “non-intervention” that ASEAN long keeps and preserves.

The absence of a regional human rights mechanism in ASEAN itself is, directly and indirectly, driving and keeping the lack of human rights issues addressing within the region. ASEAN is “geographically, politically, and culturally too diverse for human rights to be managed effectively by a single overarching mechanism”—adding another obstacle in solving the Rohingyas “problem” through ASEAN way as well as in ASEAN Community—which is quite contradictory to human rights values that are based on and demand universality.

As a part of the international community, even though Malaysia is a non-state party to the 1951 Convention and thereby is not, by treaty, legally bound to the Convention, Malaysia is still bound to the principle of non-refoulment that is embedded in the Convention. The principle functions as a (customary international) law that puts Malaysia to still be obligated to respect the law, as Malaysia is a part of the international community and also the ASEAN Community.

Media coverage, in fact, has recorded that many Rohingyas who fled their home country, Myanmar, were already “thrown here and there” by neighboring countries due to rejection against them long before the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak. Even though on the surface, it seems that the fear over pandemic is understandable, in its foundation, the response of rejection is not to be carried out. Therefore, the rejection of the Rohingyas due to fear of infection is utterly unjustified.


Malaysia is bound to the international responsibility to provide international protection to refugees and asylum seekers to extent and degree that are relevant for a non-state party to the 1951 Convention in commitment and accordance to the international legal regime. With or without a pandemic, it can never efface the trait of “refugees” and “asylum seekers” in an international landscape that they become the living reminder of international responsibility to a failed system of a country that takes place in modern society as well as a reminder to us as parts of the international community that we are not going to fail our shared system too.

Alifa Salsabila, SH is an American Studies graduate student at Universitas Gadjah Mada. Currently, Alifa is a research intern in Research Division, ASEAN Studies Center UGM. Alifa could be reached at her email:

The Achilles Heel: Disputes Between ASEAN Member State

By Fadhil Haidar Sulaeman (Picture: Peter Paul Rubens)

This essay will discuss intra-ASEAN regional disputes and their impact on more significant economic and political integration in the region. Since ASEAN was built in 1967 by the first five countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines (and then joined Brunei in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Myanmar and Laos in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999), ASEAN has to face the challenges of political security and economic instability. ASEAN came to aim at promoting economic growth, social and cultural development, and strengthening security in the Southeast Asian region. This condition led to the formation of ASEAN by signing an Amity and Cooperation Agreement, which involved principles and norms upheld by every ASEAN member to date, including respecting any sovereignty, not interfering in other members’ domestic matters, and consensus agreements. In fact, until the late 1990s, ASEAN was recognized as a successful organization in hiding problems such as territorial disputes between ASEAN members and conflicts in Cambodia (although not yet members) through informal and formal means or the so-called “ASEAN Way.”

Nevertheless, a dispute in disguise is still a dispute, and states could not just abandon it altogether. Unlike the dispute between ASEAN member states and the People’s Republic of China, this dispute has a little airing time on the mass media. However, the minimum coverage that it got was not proportional to the effect that it imposes towards the unity of ASEAN. These disputes create distrust and malign intentions between member states, which leads towards an emerging security dilemma to compel each state in arming themselves against the possibility of aggression from the others. This intra-ASEAN security dilemma, in return, hinders a cohesive and united response towards external security challenges, such as the South China Sea dispute.

The foundation of the emerging security dilemma could be traced to the suspicion that each contending states have suspicion over one other. Ever since the European states colonized Southeast Asia, the modern-day state border was established based upon the lines that the colonizers made of them. In other words, the ethnic and religious groups that live in a particular area would be separated by the border without their considerations or opinion.  For instance, the current separatist movement in the Pattani region of Southern Thailand is rebelling since the majority of people that live in that area are predominantly Muslims and Malays, whereas the majority that live in Thailand were Buddhist and Thais.  Moreover, the region used to be a sovereign nation called “The Sultanate of Patani” until Thailand invade and annex the region under the Burney Treaty. Hence, tension still exists between Thailand and Malaysia over the insurgency in Southern Thailand, and ASEAN prefers to keep the issue of the discussion in its meetings or summits.

Similarly, the issue of North Borneo is also contested by Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Malaysia and Indonesia are conflicting to determine the sovereignty of Ambalat island, and several incidents have erupted where the armed forces of both nations are involved in a military confrontation.  On the other hand, the Philippines and Malaysia are still disputing the status over the State of Sabah, as Manila claims that the province was leased towards the British North Borneo Company while Malaysian believes that the 1878 Agreement was a transfer of sovereignty.  In 2013, a military conflict occurred between the Malaysian Royal Armed Forces and the militants loyal to King Jamalul Kiram III of the Sultanate of Sulu, based in the southern Philippines. As a result, these developments raise a sense of insecurity between the three nations and force them to restraint themselves in the ASEAN to preserve order and stability in the region. Even then, the Southeast Asian states still have to deal with the Chinese onslaught in the South China Sea. With China building military bases in the Spratlys and Paracels, Beijing is directly confronting Southeast Asian claimant states such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia.

Even though the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is present and active, its implementation by signatories states could be seen as a deviation from its original purposes, such as the recent standoff between the Chinese oil survey ships and the Vietnamese coastguard. With the tension boiling in the region, the United States intervene under the pretext of ‘maintaining the freedom of navigation’ as stipulated in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. By sailing its Carrier Battle Group through the South China Sea and conducting naval exercises with ASEAN member states, America has challenged the Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea by conducting a show of force of its military might. In other words, the U.S. can attack Chinese installation in the South China Sea and increase suspicion in Beijing about the real U.S. intention.  Therefore, all stakeholders in the South China Sea issue have suspicion towards each other. If this situation is not addressed, then the region would face a similar fate that it endures in the Colonial era: chaotic, divided, and conquered.

Fadhil Haidar Sulaeman is an International Undergraduate Program student at Universitas Gadjah Mada, majoring in International Relations with a concentration on Global Politics and Security (GPS). Currently, he serves as a Research Division Intern at ASEAN Studies Center UGM. He could be contacted through email:

Sustainable Fisheries in Southeast Asia: A Long Way to Go

By Fadilah Rahma (Picture: Blue Growth)

The fisheries industry plays a vital role in the ASEAN economy. The region has been a significant producer of fish and other fish products, where it accounted for a quarter of fish production globally. It has also served as a vital source and a key contributor to rural livelihood, export revenue for several billion dollars in GDP, and even the food security for the region. However, its significance does not always result in a good cause. The hurdle insists, such as the problem of Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing that still happens region-wide. More than that, the human rights issue that has been lingering among the workers in the fishing industry, especially migrant workers, is another issue that subsists in the region for decades. Still, there is very little progress in addressing them despite the demand and supply in the industry that is growing substantially.


A windy, and rocky road to sustainability

IUU is a notable threat to the exploitation of the world’s fisheries resources, which attributes to many problems that lie within in achieving sustainable fishers. As one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world, ASEAN is in a vulnerable state. Threatened by overfishing and destructive fishing, the data shows that 64 percent of the fisheries’ resource base in the region is at a medium to high risk, affecting Cambodia and the Philippines the most.

The  Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Index, as an index that benchmark countries according to both of their exposure and response to the problem of IUU, showing that four of the ASEAN member states include in the ten worst performing countries for coastal state responsibility, with Vietnam as the worst. While the maps, ranking tables, and country profiles on the IUU Fishing Index in 2019 provide indicator scores for all individual countries for different combinations of indicator groups, Indonesia and Cambodia are in the particular concern on all features. Both are part of the ten worst-performing countries in regards to two out of three indicator types.

Some ASEAN member states were also facing trouble because of its pervasive problem to the extent of external trade. Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines have been given yellow cards from the European Commission in the past related to its poor fishing industry standards. It was revoked in January 2019 for Thailand and the Philippines, with Vietnam is at the pre-identification phase measure.

However, the problem does not end there. The lack of supervision, law enforcement, and management in the industry causes another major problem: the human rights violations that happened almost for years, and IUU is inextricably associated with the mater. Just about this year, in May 2020, the fishing industry has again raised concern about its working standard and conditions as a video allegedly showing Chinese sailors throwing a body overboard, which went viral. The victim was later found as an Indonesian migrant fishery worker. It is, of course, not only the problem of the affected countries, because historically speaking, ASEAN member states have a similar case that has not been settled thoroughly. For example, Thailand has been heavily criticized following reports of human and labor rights abuses in the fishing industry that happened in the region. The 2015 Benjina case also proved that there is still a failure of the regional mechanism, in combating the challenges.


An urgent need: regional collective action in the fishing industry

Achieving sustainable fisheries is not easy, of course. As it involves a major trans-boundary crime such as IUU and human rights abuses, ASEAN definitely needs a collective action done by its all member states. The weak law enforcement of fishing regulations, the lack of supervision among the regions, and the poor coordination on collective management fisheries are some of the homework that needs to be addressed.

So far, the actions that have been done by ASEAN are not yet enough, with very little progress has been made. The member states have pledged to enhance sustainable fishing through the ASEAN-Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) on regional cooperation forum in Thailand in 2016. But the implementation does not come with no challenge. From the violators that range from small scale actors to large-scale enterprises in the region, the excessive demands on the sectors have helped to sustain the practice of IUU, and maritime jurisdiction becomes tricky to address the problem. A further step has to be made, such as a synchronization of the national plans among the member states regarding the fisheries policies.

Other than that, the commitment among the member states to ensure the safety of the migrant fisheries worker also has not been declared collectively. For example, the convention of ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention C18, that addresses the major issues affecting workers on board fishing vessels, such as occupational safety and health, rest periods, written contracts, and social security protection is not yet ratified by most of ASEAN member states. Only Thailand is set to become the first country in ASEAN to ratify the convention.

To achieve the sustainable fisheries that are set to accomplish by at least in 2025, ASEAN can do better by adopting more science-based knowledge of the region’s marine ecosystem to help them having a strategic regional marine policy. Together, the member states can work side by side to combat IUU and human rights abuse as the problems can not be done unilaterally. Delaying the matters is the same as putting the life of migrant fisheries workers and our biodiversity in jeopardy, and we do not need any more victims to be sacrificed for the sake of fulfilling the demands in the industry.

Fadilah Rahma Nur R is an undergraduate student majoring in International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada, and currently is an intern under the program division at ASEAN Studies Center UGM. She is interested in environmental, animal welfare, and sustainability issues, mainly in Southeast Asia.

Indonesian “Total People’s Defense” Against Coronavirus

By Rafyoga Jehan Pratama Irsadanar and Muhammad Aziz Irfanuddin (Photo: Indonesian Ministry of Defense)

Unlike some other countries which utilize military measures to push the people to stay home under the social distancing plan, the Indonesian Minister of Defense, Prabowo Subianto makes a minimalist appearance in public. As others are deploying troops to prevent riots or to shoot lockdown offenders down, many have questioned the absence of Prabowo in the battle against coronavirus. The critics are asserted by the notion that COVID-19 is considered as a non-military threat against national security, in which people assume that it is within the Ministry of Defense domain to deal with. However, earlier in his administration, Minister Prabowo highlighted a concept of Total People’s Defense (Pertahanan Rakyat Semesta) as the central tenet for the national security. That military doctrine could be a sidekick to lead the people battling the outbreak.

Total People’s Defense and Coronavirus

The core idea of Indonesian Total People’s Defense was initially introduced in article 27 of the Indonesian 1945 Constitution, stating that every citizen has the right and obligation to defend the country. The principle was advanced in Indonesian Constitution no.3 of 2002 as it the article 2 states “the national defense system is a total defense system involving all citizens, territories and other national resources, and is prepared by the government and is carried out in a total, integrated, directed, and continuous manner to protect state sovereignty, territorial integrity, and nation’s security from all kind of threats.” In the sense of traditional war, it will require all layers of Indonesian citizens to be part of the battle.

Even though it was criticized for being outdated when Prabowo planned to amplify the concept through country defense program (program bela negara), Total’s People Defense could be a good deal in combatting the outbreak. Through Regulation no. 23 of 2019, the concept explains that Indonesia’s total defense system is divided into three components; the main component, secondary component, and the supporting component. The classification works as an inclusive parameter easing citizens to participate in the defense system based on their roles and occupations. So even when the citizens are not incorporated in the military forces, they will still be able to fulfill their obligations based on their specialty among the three clusters.

Contextualized with COVID-19, the main component would be carried out by the Ministry of Health as the frontline to stop the virus spreading through its leadership, expertise, and authority. The secondary component will be the Indonesian army as well as relevant stakeholders and related ministries to support the logistic distribution. Indonesian citizen will be the supporting components to stop the spread of COVID-19 by enforcing the physical distancing and to follow the government regulations.

In a pandemic, the Total People’s Defense is accurate to execute the concept where the ‘enemy’ is literally in front of everyone. It also requires collective practical participation from all layers of society to combat it, ranging from essential key workers in the frontline to corporate workers working from home. Regardless of the invisibility of the virus, everyone’s life is as stake without the collective actions.

Supporting Central Government Leadership Crisis

In the current crisis, the manifestation of the defense doctrine could support the lacking central government leadership in facing the outbreak. The mismanagement of the outbreak and controversial statements made by the Indonesian Health Minister has revealed the flaws of government leadership. Even though Prabowo admitted that he was not trained to face the ‘unseen’ such as to cure a pandemic, but the retired general was prepared in leading people to face the worse situation in crisis. This military trait should be able to back the government, regaining the people’s trust.

The military doctrine has the potential to mobilize people to stay at home. As characterized earlier, the Total People’s Defense could make everyone feels significantly involved in defending the country. It fits the context of Indonesian society where the people are more likely to be swayed by a personal approach, as many campaign strategists are making the candidate personally attached to voters during elections. This trait could be taken advantage of in dealing with coronavirus, as the current measures are making the society as the object by forcing them to stay home, sometimes against their will. The Total People’s Defense will make Indonesians the subject against coronavirus as they feel personally involved in flattening the curve.

Despite the aptitudes, raising the awareness to battle the virus is difficult when the vulnerable are not protected yet. As what is happening around the world, many are not able to stay home as they worked daily jobs, forcing them to break the rules for social distancing. However, many are not self-quarantining themselves due to the lack of information. The latter group could be the initial target of the Total People’s Defense narratives in flattening the curves. As the most significant active internet user in Southeast Asia, the Indonesian government should massively campaign the military doctrine to increase its people’s awareness and reaffirm its leadership amidst this health crisis.

From the government standpoint itself, the government must be transparent and establish effective coordination among its ministries, preventing contradictive policies in stopping the COVID-19 pandemic. Unified policies by related ministries and agencies should be made harmoniously under the Ministry of Health and COVID-19 Task Force strategy, with the President Office taking the command. Rather than focusing on resource-wise, as the central government has proven to be able to pay influencers to boost tourism amidst coronavirus, they could readjust the focus to campaign the Total People’s Defense against coronavirus. Such a budget could be allocated to support the frontline workers as the main component of the national defense and to subsidize the vulnerable actors.

Rafyoga is Monbukagakusho Scholar in Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies (GSICS), Kobe University. Prior joining GSCIS, he was a research intern and research assistant at ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada.

Muhammad Aziz is scholarship grantee in Indonesia Defense University. He is a post-graduate student in the Faculty of National Security, Department of Peace and Conflict Resolution.

Southeast Asian Migrant Workers in the Pandemic

By Muhammad Fakhri Abdurahman (picture: Flickr/ILO)

Southeast Asia is arguably the region with the heaviest implications of the coronavirus pandemic. With one the most populous region and one of the biggest economic regions in the world, the impact of the health crisis that have led submerged into other sectors will be hard felt by all layers of the society. Notwithstanding the grievances and difficulties faced by other members of the workforce, some of the impact of the crisis are exacerbated in the case of migrant workers. Southeast Asia is home to 9.9 million international migrants with 6.9 million have moved in between the region. With the differences in policies in response to the pandemic taken by governments in the region, migrant workers face varying degrees of threats towards their livelihoods, healthcare, and jobs.

The crisis has led to a restriction in the workforce having to stay at home, strict traveling and border measures, and a host of policies that stretches the thin safety nets migrant workers have. Several concerns of migrants include but not limited to wages, job security, social security, healthcare and insurance, and housing.

First, migrant workers face a rising trend of extreme wage cuts in almost all sectors. This concerns all workers but would hit migrant workers the most as the majority are recipients to barely living wages. Some face wage cuts up to 50% in the manufacturing industry. Employers of workers have been affected severely by the pandemic, while some sectors, including manufacturers, are unable to shift their work into work-from-home arrangements. Migrant workers would also be impacted, noting that a proportion of them are daily wage earners, informal workers, and low-income workers.

Second, workers are faced with job losses as some employers would be unable to continue businesses or could only survive at the expense of cutting workers. Third, the concerns over healthcare, insurance, and social security is also a question towards the citizenship status of these migrant workers. Even more worrisome is the case of undocumented workers as having to visit a hospital should they contract the virus will lead to a series of legal repercussions.

Governments have had different approaches to migrant workers. Following a border closing, Singapore is left to deal with 300,000 Malaysian migrant workers unable to return home. The government has resorted to public housing that led to a new cluster of transmissions. The public dorm for migrant workers is home to 85% of Singapore’s positive cases. Notwithstanding the setback, Singapore has been at the forefront of the outbreak as the policies have allowed for free masks and hand sanitizers, mass tests and contact tracing, and strict border rules.

However, Singapore has had restrictions over testing foreigners over fears that recently arrived individuals purposefully visited the country for a test while the country is short on supplies. With the ASEAN Economic community’s aim to ease the transfer of jobs between countries, there is a necessity to focus on migrant workers, and the impact of COVID-19 brought to them. ASEAN has only had a limited focus on labor rights and a national government response equally sub-optimal.

In the regional level, ASEAN members have been late to promote the ratification and implementation of the International Labour Organization (ILO) measures on labor rights towards its members, let alone migrant workers. Despite the adoption of the ASEAN Consensus on the Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2017, governments have been less than adept in handling migrants, especially in times of crisis.

Mobility and social security of migrant workers should be the concern for ASEAN during the crisis as borders close and works are depleting. Public health, as a matter of national security and the economy, has been the talking point for most of ASEAN meetings following the summit. These topics have come with a limitation over what can be done. The case of migrant workers should be promoted further as the more profound question of globalization, freedom of movement, and the grand project of the ASEAN Economic Community is looming.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to an abruptly changed world. The pre-COVID 19 worlds held its grievances for migrant workers in Southeast Asia. The impact of this pandemic has only added salt to the wounds. The policies taken by governments at the national and regional level will be detrimental to the fate of the migrant workers.

Muhammad Fakhri Abdurahman is an undergraduate student majoring in International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada. Fakhri is currently an intern at ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia.

A Growing Stigma: The Danger of Discriminating Against the Rights of Healthcare Workers

By Muhammad Diaz Kurniawan (Photo by: Lemparbatu)

Whether doctors, nurses, administrative officers, kitchen staff or janitors at quarantine centers, all are at the frontline of handling the COVID-19 pandemic that willing to take risks to save patients’ lives. Many out there play the ultimate role of fighting for the safety of those who are still healthy as those who recover will develop herd immunity once the recovered have been discharged from the hospital.

The success of those at the frontline of the COVID-19 is paramount in the handling of the pandemic, which was first reported at the end of 2019. Therefore, sustenance for them should be made priority by the government and private sectors with social support from the general public, as each party has a role to play in further preventing the spread of this virus.

However, instead of receiving this critical support which they require, health care workers face various difficulties in carrying out their duties. The situation is further complicated by the scarcity of essential Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as surgical masks and hazmat clothing which is causing an increase of exposure to healthcare workers. The Indonesian Doctors Association (IDI) has announced that 24 doctors and 12 nurses have died so far during the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily because they did not use adequate PPE due to the scarcity caused by hoarding of the supplies and also panic buying by society despite the WHO regulations giving the right to PPE for health workers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Additionally, healthcare workers are not able to exercise the freedom to carry out their duties. For example in Jakarta, doctors and nurses are not being allowed to enter houses because the community is worried that they will spread the virus. It has also been reported that communities have banned health workers who have died due to exposure from the coronavirus to be buried in the local cemeteries despite receiving guarantee that the condition of the bodies comply with health regulations. It is very clear that, at this point, even the right to be buried humanely has been deprived from those who have fought against this pandemic. An underlying cause of this is stigma.

Stigma in handling the COVID-19 pandemic could have implications for the decline in the performance of the healthcare system. Limiting the movement of healthcare workers, their rejection by the community and community selfishness in the form of hoarding and panic buying of PPE will adversely impact the availability of health facilities and the performance of healthcare workers in treating patients.

This situation almost resembles the social stigma which has been reported in the cases of HIV/AIDS. Stigmatization and discrimination not only occur from the surrounding community with which they intersect, but also from the healthcare workers who intensively interact with them.

From research conducted by the ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Gadjah Mada in collaboration with SHAPE-SEA in 2018 on discrimination against the community living with HIV/AIDS, the stigma primarily arises from incomplete dissemination of information on what it means to be HIV/AIDS positive. Further this misinformation has encouraged assumptions-based understanding and a misjudgment of this health condition. The two are also present across cases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paranoia is stoked by misleading news and media that highlights the numbers of infections, deaths and recoveries like some sort of competition. The panic created encourages people to resist restrictions and reject the healthcare workers, leading to the discrimination against them.

The key to this situation is to respond. More needs to be done to educate the community in order for this growing social stigma to be avoided. A social campaign such as #ClapForOurCarers, that brings people to appreciate the work of healthcare workers could be an example of alternative way to educate communities about the important role of healthcare worker and as well as maintaining a positive social psychology for everyone. By responding to this growing stigmatization, we are effectively addressing the discrimination against the rights of our healthcare workers, which is a much-needed form of support at the moment. It is time that the community work hand in hand and focus on playing their respective roles in battling the COVID-19 pandemic as it is the only way to bring it to an end and see the community out of the dark.

This Op-ed also appears under the COVID-19 Op-ed section of the Strengthening Human Rights and Peace Research and Education in ASEAN/Southeast Asia (SHAPE-SEA) site.


ASEAN, the Quad, and China: A Security Contestation for the Indo-Pacific Region

By Fadhil Haedar Sulaeman (Photo: The National Interest)

In June 2019, ASEAN leaders successfully adopted the “ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific” (AOIP) at the 34th ASEAN Summit. The outlook, formulated by the Republic of Indonesia, emphasizes the importance of ASEAN centrality, inclusivity, and complementarity in the Indo-Pacific region as its main principles (Singh and Henrick, 2020). These principles gave ASEAN much flexibility to utilizes its method of interaction, which is consultation and inclusive cooperation, to advance their prosperity in strategic sectors such as maritime, economics, cultural, and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Besides, the outlook also gave ASEAN a prominent role in shaping the discourses and development regarding the Indo-Pacific issue, which become increasingly more prominent throughout the years to come (He and Mingjiang, 2020). However, ASEAN was not the only major actor in the Indo-Pacific region, as other power with diverse motives also lurks to shape the region towards their interests. Currently, two great powers are reported to expand their power and influence in the region. The first great power, the United States of America, have increasingly increased their presence by devising their strategy in the Indo-Pacific, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), and implements it by empowering the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) that includes lesser power such as India, Japan, and Australia (Misra, 2020). The other great power, the People’s Republic of China, has been courting Indo-Pacific states with their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects while maintaining a hostile policy in the South China Sea (Cronin, 2020). With these two great powers implementing their policy in the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN is caught in the middle of a geopolitical contestation. Therefore, this essay believes that ASEAN should maintain the AOIP foreign policy and not to bandwagon with either power, as choosing sides between the two great powers and their blocs would be a disadvantageous policy for the security architecture of Southeast Asia.

On the one hand, ASEAN should also be critical of Chinese foreign policy in regards to the Indo-Pacific region. Even though Beijing has not yet to adopt the term “Indo-Pacific” due to its suspicion, several foreign policy such as the Chinese militarization of the South China Sea, the so-called “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean, and the Belt and Road Initiative shows that China is an assertive player in the Indo-Pacific region (He and Li, 2020). In regards to the militarization of the South China Sea, China has been developing an Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) as a part of its national defense strategy to deter foreign aggression, in accordance to the Island Chain Theory (Liu, 2020). So far, the Chinese approach to the South China Sea dispute is based upon the strategy of bilateralism, and thus the international call to multilateralism dialogue has been deferred and not to mention their persistence in violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Gong, 2020). Therefore, Chinese foreign policy in the South China Sea contradicts the AOIP, in which the principle of inclusivity and international law is cast aside. Likewise, if ASEAN chose to align their Indo-Pacific policy with those of Beijing’s, the United States would not contend with accepting such adjustment. Reassessing previous American foreign policy in the region, the United States would not sit still to see that its adversaries were gaining such power to the extent of regional domination, such as the rollback or the regime change foreign policy doctrine (Litwak, 2007). In addition, the world has currently seen an increasing trend in the utilization of proxy warfare, and the United States’ support of the Kurdish rebellion in Syria is one of them (Thornton, 2015). At the same time, several intra-state conflicts still occur in Southeast Asia, such as the Myanmar Civil War and the Moro conflict. In the end, the United States would have more incentive to support armed rebellion or opposition in Southeast Asia if the region is to fall within the Chinese sphere of influence (Valencia, 2018). This outcome would be the opposite of what the AOIP envisioned, which is the principle of “complementarity” that could find a peaceful and diplomatic solution instead of armed hostilities.

On the other hand, the United States-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and their Free and Open Indo-Pacific is not a suitable policy to be taken by ASEAN either. First of all, The Quad was allegedly a bandwagon of states that seeks to curb China’s influence in the international community, and indeed, these countries possess a geopolitical obstacle for China (Liu, 2020). India would check Chinese power expansion in the Indian Ocean, while a concerted approach by Australia, Japan, and the United States would try to suppress Beijing’s influence in the Pacific Ocean following the Island Chain Theory (White, 2019). Hence, antagonizing China is not indeed a policy to be taken by ASEAN as it excludes the AOIP principle of “inclusiveness” by alienating Beijing as a significant power in the Indo-Pacific region. Furthermore, it would increase the pressure for Chinese policymakers to militarize the South China Sea further. If ASEAN decides to bandwagon with the Quad, it will prompt Beijing to increase its military capabilities in the South China Sea, as it would further envelop their geopolitical encirclement (Okuda, 2016). If the Chinese militarization of the South China Sea intensifies, then the United States and ASEAN member states would have the incentive to increase their military power in the region as a means to protect their national interests, and thus a security dilemma would arise in the region (Wuthnow, 2019). More importantly, the danger of a security dilemma in the region was not compartmented only to the ASEAN-China model or the U.S.-China model, but also a security dilemma between the ASEAN member itself (Casarini, 2018). It should be noted that Vietnam, the 2020 ASEAN Chairman, currently possesses the second most extensive Exclusive Economic Zones claims in the South China Sea and have multiple maritime disputes with ASEAN member states, such as Indonesia and Malaysia (Puspitawati and Rusli, 2020). Also, the tension between Singapore and Malaysia has had its ups and downs throughout history, and the former military power still poses some threat in the minds of Kuala Lumpur policymakers (Singh, 2015). If ASEAN did bandwagon with the United States and the Quad, then the threat of conflict in Southeast Asia was not limited to outside intervention, but also amongst ASEAN member states themselves. In comparison to the FOIP, the AOIP is a better alternative, in which a neutral regional organization that promotes state sovereignty, dialogue, and consensus decision-making is a better-suited mediator and facilitator in the Indo-Pacific region, rather than its superpower-led counterpart which allegedly involves a containment strategy aimed at another great power and could lead to a further escalation in the region.

Indeed, as an implementation of the AOIP, ASEAN should be engaged with both the U.S.-led the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and China (Leong, 2020). At a glance, the FOIP documents contains many similarities with the AOIP and there were several prospects for a merge (Tan, 2020). However, ASEAN would be forced into an asymmetrical relationship with the U.S.,  and thus it would erase the “ASEAN Centrality” principle and replaced by a Washington-centric Indo-Pacific (Saha, 2018). Additionally, even as ASEAN has welcomed the Belt and Road Initiative by signing the ASEAN-China Joint Statement, ASEAN member states should not compromise its sovereignty at the expense of foreign investment and geo-economics strategy (Li, 2020). In other words, investment projects should be transparent, and none shall be a potential or imminent threat to national security. For instance, there were reports that Chinese-owned ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan would be developed into a naval base, and such development would potentially incur negative feedbacks from India and the United States (Kanwal, 2018). In order to avoid such a scenario, it would be wise if the public maintains and improve their check and balances towards the government.

Even if the current situation still poses little security threat to ASEAN, the status quo would be changed if the two opposing great powers, the United States and China, increased their exchange of hostilities and escalate the situation. By 2025, the People Liberation Army Navy would be much more potent than it is today, and the United States would be induced to redeploy more of its forces into the Indo-Pacific region. Therefore, the United States and the Quad policy of containing China would make the latter feels like a cornered dragon, and nothing is more dangerous than a cornered animal. Similarly, Chinese economic expansion is followed by its naval build-up, and as a result, skepticism is arising among Southeast Asian states that China intends to make the region as its traditional sphere of influence. More than ever, the world needs ASEAN to be the leader in the Indo-Pacific discourses and seeks more influence in the international community.

Fadhil Haidar Sulaeman is an International Undergraduate Program student at Universitas Gadjah Mada, majoring in International Relations with a concentration on Global Politics and Security (GPS). Currently, he serves as a Research Division Intern at ASEAN Studies Center UGM. He could be contacted through email:



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Cronin, P. (2020). China’s Bid for Maritime Primacy in the Indo-Pacific. [online] The Maritime Executive. Available at: [Accessed 7 Mar. 2020].

Gong, X. (2020). Non-traditional security cooperation between China and Southeast Asia: implications for Indo-Pacific geopolitics. International Affairs, 96(1), pp.29-48.

He, K. and Li, M. (2020). Understanding the dynamics of the Indo-Pacific: US-China strategic competition, regional actors, and beyond. International Affairs, 96(1), pp.1-7.

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Liu, F. (2020). The recalibration of Chinese assertiveness: China’s responses to the Indo-Pacific challenge. International Affairs, 96(1), pp.9-27.

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Japan’s Free Vessels to Natuna: Is It Really Free?

By Rafyoga Jehan Pratama Irsadanar (Photo by Sizuru-commonswiki)

Japan started 2020 with foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu paying an official visit to Viet Nam, Thailand, Philippines, and Indonesia on January 5-11. On Japan-Indonesia Strategic Dialogue in Jakarta, Minister Retno welcomed Tokyo’s intention to strengthen the cooperation in various sectors as well as to donate patrol vessels in Natuna Islands, a recently disputed maritime domain against China. Even though many Indonesian media have seen this vessel transfer as a ‘grant’ from Japan, the defense equipment transfer shows a significant leap of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe‘s agenda to further expand its security flex in Southeast Asia. For context, Japan’s foreign policy to Southeast Asia before Shinzo Abe second administration was driven by Fukuda Doctrine, emphasizing ‘heart to heart’ balanced economic cooperation and rejecting military role within the relationship. Since Shinzo Abe reelection in 2012, Japan has been escalating its security maneuver in international cooperation, in which Southeast Asian counterparts welcomed.

Japan Military Export and Transfer to Southeast Asia

Japan’s maritime and defense equipment transfer is not new to Southeast Asia. In 2014, Prime Minister Abe had lifted Japan’s long military export and transfer restriction, allowing Japan to do defense equipment transactions as well as to transfer them to other countries, replacing the self-imposed ban made in 1967. Indonesia did receive patrol vessel donation from Japan in the early 2000s during President Megawati era, but it was done under the Official Development Assistance (ODA) framework instead of any strategic partnership as one in 2020 since Japan was still under the restriction of military equipment transfer. Since the ban relaxation, Japan already leased six patrol boats to Vietnam and donated five units of T-90 patrol aircraft to Philippines, and recently patrol vessel to Indonesia’s Natuna. This article argues that the maritime equipment is not freely given to Indonesia but for an identical purpose; to foster stability in South China Sea, or in other words, to balance China’s power in the disputed area by clarifying Tokyo’s alignment with Jakarta as the biggest maritime power in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Abe’s FOIP

Japan invested a lot of its strategic capital in Southeast Asia for a specific return; to accelerate its Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, initiated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016. This assertion emerged as Southeast Asia, with its disputed South China Sea, is the linchpin bridging Indian Ocean to Pacific Ocean. There are obvious reasons why Japan took an extra mile by fortifying its security bond with Indonesia, despite the robust economic multilayer partnerships among both countries. Besides the fact that Indonesia is the biggest maritime power in Southeast Asia, Indonesia also showed an influential leadership in ASEAN maritime policies. It was proven by the ability of Jakarta to lead other ASEAN counterparts to finally draft ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific, in harmony with Shinzo Abe Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. By the declaration of ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific, Japan showed a great motivation to support the Outlook, as Minister Montegi stated. Seeing a similar vision in achieving maritime stability, Japan will likely escalate its strategic ventures in Southeast Asia. Alongside the point that Indonesia is not the only one receiving defense equipment donation, Indonesia is the only country in Southeast Asia that Japan has 2+2 ministerial meeting model with. Therefore, it is a clear signal to include a security element to the initially economic-driven cooperation among Jakarta and Tokyo.

In the context of Natuna, the remote island in the northern part of Indonesia, appeared to be one of strategic posts for Japan invested into balance China; a major threat to Japan’s maritime interest as well as to Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision. Geopolitically, Natuna is located next to Malacca Strait, the main shipping lane connecting Indian Ocean and South China Sea, and has an abundant resource of gas reserve. As Indonesia is currently attempting to improve the economic as well as defense infrastructure of Natuna, Japan invested in the development of integrated maritime affairs and fisheries center (SKPT). Minister Retno clarified that it has been a long discussion and has nothing to do with the recent stand-off with China. However, Japan’s follow-up plan to transfer defensive vessels showed its concern to balance China in South China Sea, as Tokyo did to other Southeast Asian countries.

Japan and Indonesia have been strong partners for decades, driven by the robust economic motivation of both states. Japan’s maritime defense donation to Indonesia then expanded the spectrum to an intensified security-driven bond to balance China as the source of threat in the maritime domain. Added by the fact that ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific is Jakarta-led initiative, Tokyo felt optimistic that both countries’ cooperation would be further strengthened prospectively both in economic and security sectors.

Rafyoga is Monbukagakusho Scholar at Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies (GSICS), Kobe University, Japan. Prior joining GSICS, he was a research intern and research assistant at ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia.

Indonesia, Making Sense of Coronavirus

By Yulida Nuraini Santoso (Photo: Agus Suparto)

As citizens of Indonesia carefully eyed the latest number of positive cases of the Coronavirus and death tolls, sad news struck. On Wednesday evening, 25 March 2020, officials announced the passing of Mrs. Sujiatmi Notomiharjo at the age of 77, the mother of the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo (Jokowi). Despite being safely sheltered from the radar of national news for years, for many the news of her passing still hit close to home. News outlets across the country broadcasted her funeral live and news of her passing for 48 consecutive hours.

This sudden passing concealed ongoing news in the country on the COVID-19 testing for lawmakers and their families despite the outpouring of public outrage, the severe lack of protective gear for medical personnel across the country forcing some to wear disposable plastic raincoats, the early home-bound exodus ahead of Idul Fitri despite government appeals to avoid travel, and the determination of the government to not impose any form of lockdown in the country. This, for Jokowi, was a storm in the making.

In facing the outbreak head-on, he opted for massive tracing, testing, and isolation of infected patients, as was the approach chosen by South Korea. This was in contrast to lockdown measures to contain the spread in Malaysia, Spain, and the United Kingdom. However, many criticise this as being ‘too little too late’. Even if the lockdown were to take place, Jokowi had wasted precious weeks convincing the world there were zero cases. On the same day that the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, Indonesia confirmed its first death due to the Coronavirus. Ironically, it has even ranked first in highest death rate at 8.73%, as of 26 March 2020. This percentage is expected to increase exponentially in the months to come, if the spread cannot be effectively contained.

On the bright side, COVID-19 tests can now be performed at 12 labs across Indonesia, three of which are in Jakarta. This is, however, far from meeting the criteria and needs of massive tracing and testing, bearing in mind the 34 provinces spread across the archipelago, the rapid rate of the exponential growth, and the lack of government appetite to implement a thorough lockdown. Critics blame Jokowi’s reluctancy on the impact it will have on the exchange rate of the Rupiah. The Rupiah has inched ever closer to Rp 17.000,- against the US Dollar, which is the weakest the nation has seen since the 1998 crisis. Even the recent injection to financial markets by the Bank of Indonesia has not done much to alleviate tensions.

Notwithstanding the turbulence that the COVID-19 has caused, many have taken to the streets and online to launch humanitarian campaigns, public appeals, and social causes all of which are aimed at supporting the most vulnerable members of the society. These acts are aimed particularly towards those who cannot afford the luxury of ‘working from home’ despite the exponential growth of the virus and government appeal to adhere to ‘social distancing’. Many private sectors have joined, offering certain services free of charge for the weeks to come.

Right now, Jokowi is looking at a greater dilemma: whether to put medical front liners at further risk by sticking to a partial lockdown, or attempt to flatline the Coronavirus curve with a complete lockdown at severe economic and security cost — a luxury Indonesia cannot afford. Yet under this immense pressure, the nation managed to see humanity. A moving image of the President became viral that night. It depicted him wiping his tears, alone, in a corner, as if struggling to make sense of this loss and beaten by the battle which has yet to be fought. That Wednesday, for a split moment, Indonesia not only placed the pandemic into perspective, it saw the face of a son who lost his mother.

This Op-ed also appears under the COVID-19 Op-ed section of the Strengthening Human Rights and Peace Research and Education in ASEAN/Southeast Asia (SHAPE-SEA) site.



by Fara Sheila Azalia, Intern for Program Division of ASEAN Studies Centre, Universitas Gadjah Mada (Picture by

ASEAN which previously comprised of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, and the Philippines, received the newest four members at the end of 1990s: Vietnam in 1995, Lao PDR and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999. Referred to the CLMV (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam) countries, these four countries have changed the scope of ASEAN. Its membership means that ASEAN’s efforts to integrate the economy of the whole region has another work on how to integrate such a diverse country with different economic stages.

When CLMV countries firstly joined ASEAN, there were benefits that go both ways, not only for the ASEAN as a regional organization but also for the development of the CLMV countries itself. To counter the rise of Chinese domination after the isolation of Beijing post-Tiananmen Square massacre, ASEAN needs the help of CLMV countries to be on their side so that CLMV’s support goes to ASEAN instead of China. With incorporating CLMV countries, ASEAN too could strengthen their position during multilateral cooperation. (Soja, 2017) Also, military cooperation of CLMV countries with external partners such as the US could be perceived as ‘threat’ by other member states and could lead to arm race, however, this could be reduced by CLMV accessions to ASEAN. For CLMV countries, pressure for economic development would transform their economy to reach growth. Gradual modernization for CLMV countries needed to make sure they could catch up with other ASEAN member states.

However, their presence also creates a concern of ‘development divide’ between integrating those fast-growing modern economy countries such as Singapore and Brunei Darussalam with those of inward-looking poor countries–CLMV countries. (Pomfret, 2013)

The four countries have different economic structures due to different history among them. Vietnam has undergone a lot of policy changes since its reunification between the Communist North and market-based South in 1975, with they are now currently pursuing privatization policy along with encouraging more foreign investment under the so-called doi moi reform. (Pomfret, 2013) On the other hand, Lao PDR as a landlocked country lack behind than Vietnam. Since the country has overthrew the Lao monarch in 1975, they have tried several programs such as financial reforms and privatization programs in 1988. (Pomfret, 2013) However, the progress is not as fast as those that Vietnam experience, since Laos is a landlocked agrarian country. Myanmar and Cambodia was experiencing almost similar situation with those of Lao PDR. (Pomfret, 2013)

To narrow the development divide, there has been a proposal to create the ASEAN Convergence Fund under the ASEAN Development Fund where the source of money comes from voluntary member states and managed by professionals. (ADBI 2012) However, Menon argued that this proposal might not work as the voluntary member states who is going to likely finance are Singapore and Brunei Darussalam (the richest member states among other ASEAN members) which is relatively small compared to the four countries they are going to finance. (Menon, 2012) Any kind of effort to give aid from these relatively small countries would converge the developmental divide, however, making CLMV countries dependent on the long run. Therefore, Menon argued that there has to be a policy from the countries itself to improve their economic development. How would ASEAN then could realize what they envision in ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) with the notion of ‘developmental divide’ with CLMV countries?

AEC itself has four pillars: single market with single production base where this included free flow of goods, free flow of investment, free flow of capital, and free flow of skilled labour, creating equitable economic development in the region, establishing a highly competitive economic region where this includes creating policies that foster competition among the member states, and having the region fully integrated with global economy. (Lim & Nyunt, 2010) How is CLMV’s situation so far? CLMV Countries are having economic developmental gap among them. They had yet to implement the whole AEC pillar. Not only they have gap with ASEAN older members, but they also have gap within themselves. The first prerequisite for CLMV countries to catch up with AEC is through tackling the ‘equitable economic development’ pillar first. This could be assessed through the income per capita in each country. A study by Fumitaka Furuoka (2018) found that CLMV countries’ income gap exists, although the four countries made progress to overcome their lackluster economic development. Cambodia succeeded in reaching the same income level with Indonesia, while Vietnam is currently catching up with Indonesia and Philippines. Myanmar and Lao PDR have remained income gap that is not reduced yet. (Furuoka, 2018) The concern for developmental divide has been discussed since the four countries joined ASEAN and thus they compete with each other on catching up with ASEAN older member states. Cambodia started first in 1985 by transforming its economy into a market-oriented one. Lao PDR’s transition to market-oriented economy started in 1986 through implementing the New Economic Mechanism. Vietnam’s economic opening to trade and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) as part of doi moi reforms started in 1986. (Menon, 2012) Vietnam’s economic development can be said to progress rapidly compared to the other three, as the country right now is focusing its export on rice and crude oil. The country is even bypassing the Philippines.

The result was outstanding as the four countries achieved rapid growth, however, this growth is creating another divide among them. The distribution of gains for each country are very different from one to another, thus creating another issue of uneven and income inequality within these countries. In other words, “inter-country differences in economic conditions are narrowing at the same time that intra-country differences are increasing’. (Menon, 2012). In the realm of trade openness, for example, Vietnam has reached a percentage of GDP above 100% while Cambodia lagged behind as a result of ban on log exports and the rise of new competitor–the US and the European Union (EU) as export destinations. (Menon, 2012) Vietnam then proceeded to pursue an increase in sub-regional trade with Thailand, through having more trade partners and leaving Myanmar, Lao PDR, and Cambodia in 2010. However, Cambodia showed a good result when they switch their raw commodity export into manufactured-goods exports due to changing demand. This is through garments exports which account for most of Cambodian exports. However, Myanmar and Lao PDR are still relying on labor-intensive and resource-based production when it comes to producing manufactured goods.

CLMV as a whole’s FDI has seen an increase over the last two decades as shown by its stock which amounted to $209bn. (Menon, 2012) As previously in the 1980s all the four countries were skeptical against FDI, now the four countries are very welcoming towards FDI. The two contributing countries for the increasing FDI in CLMV were Vietnam and Cambodia with both FDI’s stock-to-GDP ratios rose well above the sub-regional average. However, Myanmar’s openness to FDI experienced decline since 1998. Lao PDR managed to get opportunities of attracting FDI through its agriculture and forestry, along with its mining and hydropower projects. Therefore, the dilemma persists: when a country choose to switch to a market-oriented economy, they can have rapid growth. However, at the same time they also faced with more inequality among them.

One might ask whether the CLMV countries have to catch up as a whole or individually with ASEAN older member states? Should they then be grouped as ‘one’, newest member states of ASEAN that deserves attention since they came from Mekong region with predecessors of GMS which already handled them, long before coming to ASEAN? Or should they proceed with using ‘ASEAN Minus X’ formula to alter the gap among them?



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Lim, H. and Nyunt, K.M. (2010). STUDY TO DETERMINE THE IMPACT OF ACCELERATING THE ASEAN ECONOMIC COMMUNITY FROM 2020 TO 2015 ON CAMBODIA, LAO PDR, MYANMAR AND VIETNAM (CLMV). [online], Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) & Mae Fah Luang University, p.13. Available at: [Accessed 12 Dec. 2019].

Menon, J. (2012). Narrowing the development divide in ASEAN: the role of policy. Asian-Pacific Economic Literature, [online] 27(2), pp.25–51. Available at: [Accessed 18 Dec. 2019].

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