5 Months Left for Southeast Asia to Build the Case in UNSC

By Truston Yu (Photo: White House, Pete Souza)

On 17 June, the United Nations General Assembly elected the new class of non-permanent members to the United Nations Security Council. India was among four countries to be elected, signaling the end to a period with two Southeast Asian countries holding UNSC membership at the same time. With an ASEAN Day looming this month, this article advocates for the greater involvement of Southeast Asia in international security. The “7+7+7” proposal by Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani, in particular, will be explored in this article.

It certainly is intriguing that India’s election came at a time of heightened tensions with China, with the battles between the Himalaya borders. This election was also a reminder that Indonesia’s tenure is coming to an end – India is Indonesia’s successor and will be taking over the seat on New Year’s day in 2021.

The UNSC is arguably the most powerful international organ in the world. There are five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The P5 are joined with ten non-permanent members, elected in batches of five every two years. There are two seats for the Asian constituencies, with one up for election every year.

Two years ago, in June 2018, Indonesia was elected to the UNSC for the fourth time with the support of 144 out of 193 UN member states. As the only G20 member coming from Southeast Asia, Indonesia is commonly seen as a leading power of the region; They are a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, having housed the Secretariat before it had its own building.

A year after Indonesia, Vietnam was elected to the UNSC with a near-unanimous 192 votes out of 193 in 2019. Vietnam was admitted to the ASEAN in 1995 and has been rapidly climbing up the ladder of economic development since then. They have been described as the biggest winner of the US-China trade war over the last few years, and in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Vietnam was one of the best-performing countries in Asia.

UNSC membership coincided with the year of ASEAN chairmanship – it was Vietnam’s turn after Thailand in the rotational system. The pairing of Indonesia and Vietnam, a founding member of the ASEAN and an impressive rising regional power, is an ideal one.

Spanning from Afghanistan to Samoa, Japan to Timor-Leste, the Asia constituency is a huge one. It is rare to have a Southeast Asian country on the Council at any given time, not to mention having two of them at the same time. Interestingly, the last time this happened was with the same pair of countries: Indonesia served between 2007-2008 and Vietnam, 2008-2009. At that time, ASEAN was celebrating its fortieth anniversary with the new ASEAN Charter. With the ASEAN Community in place now, Southeast Asia is and should be much more committed in the international arena.

Recently, there has been a push to call the non-permanent member states the “E10”, recognizing the mandate they were given. Indeed, people have challenged the P5’s legitimacy, claiming the fact that they won World War II does not mean that they could hold onto the permanent seats indefinitely. There have been significant changes in the world as well as the countries in question: the original seats were in fact, held by the Republic of China and the USSR, which were replaced by the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation respectively.

Amb. Kishore Mahbubani, prominent Singaporean diplomat and former UNSC president, famously proposed the 7+7+7 model, which is outlined in his book The Great Convergence. This is by far the most significant UNSC reform proposal coming from a Southeast Asian scholar. The first “7” are permanent members, including Brazil, India, Nigeria, and a single European Union seat.

For every Brazil, there is Argentina, which is antagonistic to its quest for permanent membership: Japan has South Korea, India has Pakistan, and Germany has its European neighbors. The way to circumvent this would be to give them a slice of it such that these countries, too, could benefit from the reforms. Thus, the second “7” comes from a pool of semi-permanent members that would rotate. Mahbubani named 28 countries on the basis of “share of global population and share of global power”, including 3 Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The final “7” are for elections among the rest of the world. While the number of elected seats shrunk from 10 to 7, Mahbubani claims that this new arrangement helps small states like Singapore, as they no longer need to compete for seats with the middle powers.

It is worth noting. However, that much has changed since Mahbubani’s book was published in 2013. Brexit showed that the European Union is not as homogeneous as perceived back then. The ASEAN Community took off in 2015, creating a more united region which has a stronger voice in the international community. Mahbubani himself acknowledged the ASEAN as a “Catalyst for Peace” in his 2017 co-authored book The ASEAN Miracle.

It is apparent now that Southeast Asia in the future. ASEAN should have a permanent seat, either represented by the Secretariat or a member state. There is no evidence that a UNSC reform will take place anytime soon, but it is not too early for Southeast Asia to build a track record and entrench itself in the highest level of international security discourse.

The world is an increasingly polarized and volatile place; there are 5 months left for the Indonesia-Vietnam duo to make a case for Southeast Asia. Even then, Southeast Asia’s quest for greater involvement in international security affairs would not end here. We must continue to prove our worth as a Catalyst for Peace in the years and even decades to come.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. His research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and the external relations of Southeast Asia.

He could be reached at his e-mail: trustonyuofficial@gmail.com

ASEAN Cultural Exchange in the Era of Interconnectedness – Examining the 3 Campus Model

By Truston Yu (Photo: Culture 360 Asia-Europe Foundation)

In my very first lecture on Southeast Asian politics, I learned about the creation of an institutionalized Southeast Asian Studies discipline in the United States. It nurtured a new generation of Southeast Asians who saw themselves not only in national terms but also as a member of the greater Southeast Asian region. It is this class of intellectuals whom, upon returning to their countries of origin after the 1950s, created a personal network that lasted decades. Could the youth today emulate the early classes of Southeast Asianists? In this article I recount my personal experiences with 3 Campus East Asia Programme, examining the prospects of emulating such a model in a Southeast Asian setting.

Socio-cultural integration is one of the ASEAN Community’s three pillars. Unfortunately, the phenomenon is that many Southeast Asians would know more about faraway countries like the United States or Japan more than their closest neighbors within the region. 2020 is the Year of the ASEAN Identity and if this is the goal, it is imperative that we instill greater regional awareness among the students today. While being a global citizen could do no harm, we must also recognize ourselves as regional citizens.

In my junior year, I had the honor of representing my home university in the 3 Campus East Asia Programme. Over the course of a year, students spend a fall semester in Tokyo, spring semester in Korea, and a summer semester in Hong Kong. The final section of the program includes a 2-week course and culminates in a social innovation internship. My primary motivation was that Japan and Korea are important players in the Southeast Asian region, and I did utilize the opportunity to speak with local scholars specializing in Southeast Asia. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience, but I wished that there was a Southeast Asian equivalent of such a program.

There are two unique features to 3 Campus: it is cohort-based and multi-destination. Unlike typical exchange programs where one would travel to their host institution alone, the diverse 3 Campus cohort is a group of ready-made friends. There are numerous dual or double degree programs around the world, but 3 Campus is unique in the sense that the cohort does not start with a blank page – they bring with them diverse perspectives from their home institutions.

The multi-destination nature of 3 Campus magnifies the benefits of the cohort-based program. Members of the consortium mirror each other in many ways: they are the oldest modern higher education institutions of their countries, enjoying great prestige and playing similar roles in their societies. Exploring the parallels and differences between destinations is part of the learning experience. Switching between three environments in one year is no easy feat, but having friends by one’s side surely helps. The shared experiences going through these challenges made the cohort bonding even tighter. Being in three destinations within the span of a year, students could triangulate and develop intercultural sensitivity, which allows them to understand and adapt to new cultures easily.

In terms of curriculum, 3 Campus incorporates a series of courses designed to provide students with deeper insights of the region beyond everyday life; The internship is a precious opportunity to experience work in an East Asian setting, setting students up for an international career. There is a profound social impact out of this program: Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans students are put together in one classroom to discuss each other’s culture and history, sometimes involving topics difficult and even painful. This paves the way towards mutual understanding and may nurture the next generation of leaders that are able to bring the region together. From Sabah to Preah Vihear, Konfrontasi to the Khmer Rouge, Southeast Asian neighbors have also been marred by historical rivalry and conflicts. a similar model in Southeast Asia could serve a greater purpose of reconciliation between rival nations.

If there is enough will from the various institutions in the region, the 3 Campus model could easily be replicated in Southeast Asia. A Bahasa-themed program could be created between Universitas Indonesia, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, and Universiti Malaya – they are the oldest universities of the Bahasa-speaking world, based in the respective capital cities: Greater Jakarta, Bandar Seri Begawan, and Kuala Lumpur. The quarrels for cultural relics like batik and rendang proves just how these neighboring countries (and Singapore) share much more than we would like to admit. Having lived in Java, Borneo, and Malaya, students would have a more nuanced understanding of the common regional heritage that connects the modern countries. A similar triangle could be drawn along the Mekong between Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, which make up the former French Indochina.

For an ASEAN studies perspective, we could form another trio between the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, the ASEAN Studies Centers at Universitas Gadjah Mada, and Chulalongkorn University. Students would get a glimpse of all three ASEAN founding members, which are very different from one another: A highly modernized city-state with a president; a diverse republic boasting hundreds of ethnic groups and a sultanate; and a kingdom where the monarch still plays a highly influential role.

These are, of course, just a few examples, so to speak. With ten ASEAN member states and Timor-Leste in waiting, there are many more potential combinations. The incorporation of students from outside the region may also be a good opportunity to showcase Southeast Asia’s diversity. At any rate, these graduates would become a new class of Southeast Asianists that would contribute towards an interconnected region.

We are now in the age of experiential learning and greater interconnection between countries. The 3 Campus model has been extraordinarily successful in an East Asian context; As we strive to advance the narrative of an ASEAN identity, educational initiatives like the 3 Campus model would be a worthwhile investment to consider.


Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. They were nominated to participate in the highly selective 3 Campus East Asia Programme, spending half a year in Japan, and Korea respectively. They could be reached at their e-mail: trustonyuofficial@gmail.com

What Southeast Asian Studies Could Learn from Japan

By Truston Yu (Picture: CSEAS Kyoto University)

The Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) at Kyoto University could be seen as the pinnacle of Southeast Asian Studies in Japanese scholarship. During my exchange semester in Japan, I had the opportunity of visiting the Center on three different occasions, speaking to the Director, and attending an academic conference. From multidisciplinary to interdisciplinary and now transdisciplinary, the CSEAS ethos completely transformed my understanding of the discipline. This article looks into the work of one of the most renowned institutions in this field, drawing lessons from Japanese academia for Southeast Asian Studies.

The Kyoto University Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) has its origins in a 1950s seminar series on research in Southeast Asia and was officially established in 1963. CSEAS prides itself on three principles: emphasis on long-term fieldwork conducted in local languages, interdisciplinarity, and “research agendas defined by local contemporary issues.”

Academia in Japan as a whole has been renowned for its excellence in Area Studies. Western institutions, such as Berkeley, required students of Chinese studies to learn the Japanese language in order to tap into the rich literature in this field. In the Western tradition, area studies tend to focus on the political and economic side of the region. CSEAS has a much more holistic perspective, which includes natural science and even medical science.

In a working paper published by CSEAS titled Bridging the Disciplinary Divide: 50 years of Research at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, it is said that Japan’s study of Southeast Asia is not free from a Japanese “ancestral sin” known as the Southern Expansion Doctrine (Nanshin-ron) in the early years following the Meiji restoration. In this sense, Japanese scholarship could be seen as being motivated by Japan’s expansionist ambitions at that time. Agricultural research projects were conducted in newly acquired territories for the purposes of higher yields with cash crops. It is this experience that shaped Japanese area studies to be more diverse than its Western counterparts. Since the 1960s in the early years of CSEAS, they have already featured a host of diverse disciplines broadly grouped under humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Despite the connection with imperialism in its early origins, Japanese literature on Southeast Asia has been and continues to be a great contributor towards our understanding of this region in different dimensions. Interdisciplinarity is an increasingly popular paradigm for understanding the world, and this is reflected in the way research is conducted at Kyoto University. Students would have at least two supervisors whose expertise is in different disciplines, and such an arrangement would allow for more nuances in research outputs.

In 2017, CSEAS launched a new initiative called the Japan-ASEAN Platform for Transdisciplinary Studies. Transdisciplinarity, as explained by CSEAS, is the idea of breaking the barriers separating academic and non-academic stakeholders. Compared to more theoretical disciplines, area studies have a more practical application as its fundamental purpose is to inform people about a particular region such that they could devise better policies. This is especially true for the various studies on Southeast Asia conducted by external parties, such as Europe in the colonial period, the United States during the Cold War, and now many more institutions around the world, given the rise of ASEAN. Much of their research output was intended to enable policymakers to engage Southeast Asia more effectively. In addition to involving the governmental, private, and civil sectors, CSEAS also works closely with local Southeast Asian researchers. In a way, CSEAS is playing a role in the notion of “bringing Southeast Asian Studies back to Southeast Asia”.

CSEAS Kyoto has become a household name for those with decent exposure to Southeast Asian Studies. In this case, why is Japanese scholarship in this region often overshadowed by its Western counterparts? The working paper suggested that it is not for lack of writings published in English, but rather “a persistent hierarchy in knowledge production that privileges both writing and publication in an Anglo-American continuum”.

To create synergy for the Asian perspective in Southeast Asian Studies, CSEAS led the establishment of the Consortium for Southeast Asian Studies in Asia (SEASIA) in 2013. The charter was signed by various regional universities, including the National University of Singapore, University of the Philippines, and Universiti Brunei Darussalam. The Consortium seeks to connect scholars and stakeholders from the region, fostering exchanges on a wide variety of topics. In some sense, this is an antidote to criticisms of Southeast Asian Studies as being affected by Orientalist perspectives.

Southeast Asian Studies in Southeast Asia is much closer to the ground, and local scholars research institutions are thus even more well-placed than those based in Japan and the West. While external parties like China or the United States only require research insights insofar as they are relevant to specific engagements such as trade or security, Southeast Asia needs to have a comprehensive understanding of itself in relation to the goals of greater regional integration. Area studies must transcend the boundaries of social sciences or humanities; Multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity should be the aspiration for researchers of Southeast Asian Studies in the region.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. Their research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and its manifestations. They could be reached at their e-mail: trustonyuofficial@gmail.com

Southeast Asian Studies and ASEAN Studies: What’s the Difference?

By Truston Yu (Picture: Businesswest)

Ever since I began my research on Southeast Asia, there has been a lingering question that intrigued me: what is the difference between Southeast Asian Studies and ASEAN Studies? Having worked with various institutions on numerous projects relating to the Southeast Asian region, I believe I now have a more well-informed answer to this question. Though, in practice, there are large overlaps between them, the two have slightly different focuses, which will be examined in this article.

Southeast Asian Studies has a longer history than ASEAN Studies. Research on Southeast Asia, such as ethnographies and ecological surveys, can at least be dated back to the colonial period. Russel Wallace’s book The Malay Archipelago is one of the most famous pieces of literature of this nature; It chronicles a British naturalist’s scientific exploration over the other side of the Earth. The first institutionalized academic program, as Benedict Anderson recalls in his book The Spectre of Comparisons, would later be offered at Yale University in 1947. It was also around that time that the world established the current conception of what “Southeast Asia” consisted of. Before there could be an ASEAN Studies, however, there must have been an “ASEAN” to begin with. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations only came into existence following the Bangkok Declaration of 1967. Hence any notion of ASEAN Studies would only come into existence afterwards. Naturally, ASEAN Studies also looks at more contemporary topics rather than historical ones.

ASEAN Studies often carry official prerogatives. ASC UGM, for example, was established by the Directorate General of ASEAN Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, in collaboration with the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences of Universitas Gadjah Mada. With a mission of “Bringing ASEAN Closer to you”, the Center organizes a wide array of events seeking to inform the wider public of regional issues. At any rate, the notion that ASEAN’s existence is desirable is taken as a given.

Most institutions that bear the name “ASEAN Studies” are found within the ASEAN region, such as the ASEAN Studies Centers at Chulalongkorn University and at Prince of Songkla University. Apart from that, institutions that carry the name “ASEAN” remain to be a minority compared to those of “Southeast Asia”.

The term “ASEAN Studies” itself implies a focus on this regional organization. ASEAN is composed of its member states, which also hints that this discipline would have a state-centric approach more or less. In certain aspects, the ASEAN Studies discipline can be described as rather rigid and narrow. Timor-Leste, for example, is a Southeast Asian country without ASEAN membership, and would often be left out of ASEAN Studies. On the contrary, Southeast Asia, has a wider and more fluid interpretation: it may include the study of religion, society, and even ecology.

In practice, however, there would be much overlap between the two fields. It ultimately depends on the institution in question. If their work covers Southeast Asian Studies in the context of contemporary politics and economy, it is more likely to overlap with ASEAN Studies. The Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) Kyoto University, on the other hand, is renowned for its interdisciplinary study of the region, which features scientific and even medical research.

In some cases, ASEAN Studies may be seen as a branch of Southeast Asian Studies. At the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (originally named the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies), for example, there is an ASEAN Studies Center, which is a unit set up alongside country studies programs such as Myanmar Studies and Indonesia Studies. Comparing it with other disciplines, a similar parallel would be the subtle distinction between European Studies and EU Studies; Perhaps we could even consider the two fields of Sinology and China Studies as a homologous pair.

Perhaps a criticism of Southeast Asian Studies and ASEAN Studies is that both fields may have a tendency of delving too much into the country-by-country distinction. Southeast Asia was divided into these boxes following the demarcation of colonial boundaries, which still restricts our thinking today. With an awareness of this potential problem, we may think out of the box to see the threads that transcend national borders.

Admittedly, the above characterizations are from a personal perspective, and the interpretation of what discipline entails is ultimately up to those who do research in it. It is up to each of us to decide what Southeast Asian Studies or ASEAN Studies mean, and what good scholarship in either field entails. That being said, hopefully, the above frameworks could serve as a paradigm for students of Southeast Asia to think about their academic goals.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. Their research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and ASEAN Studies. They could be reached at their e-mail: trustonyuofficial@gmail.com

A Provincial Level Approach to Studying China-Southeast Asia Relations

By Truston Yu (Picture: Wikimedia)

With the implementation of projects under the Belt and Road umbrella, China is becoming increasingly relevant to Southeast Asia. While China’s relative influence might be diluted by Taiwan and South Korea, which provided supplies and expertise under the pandemic, but China-Southeast Asia interactions would continue to increase on an absolute level. Thus, learning about China remains to be imperative for those in the field of Southeast Asian studies. This article seeks to shed light on the significance of a provincial framework of understanding in the study of China, explaining their roles in engaging Southeast Asia.

Contrary to what many people have assumed, China is not one single monolithic being – there are competing ideas within the ruling Chinese Communist Party; there are different ethnic groups, languages, and dialects across the country. Sinologist Lucian Pye famously described China as a “civilization pretending to be a nation-state”. To look into the black box, one possible way would be to examine China on a provincial level.

The People’s Republic of China claims 34 provincial-level administrative divisions, including five autonomous regions and two special administrative regions. This article investigates seven provincial-level divisions in the southern part of China, discussing their relevance to Southeast Asia with regard to China’s ASEAN engagement, overseas Chinese populations, and historical connections.

The Chinese province with the most overlaps with Southeast Asia is Yunnan, bordering Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. This province is home to the Dai ethnic group, one of the many ethnic minorities in China. They are closely related to the Thai, and like their counterparts to the south, Dai celebrate the water-splashing festival and speak a related language. Certain scholars would regard the current distinction between China and Southeast Asia as arbitrary; indeed, borders have changed over the centuries, and Southeast Asia’s northern frontier remains closely related to the southern tip part of China. Dai is a testament to how southern China is an extension of Southeast Asia.

Yunnan was one of the less advanced areas in China, but trade with ASEAN made it one of the fastest-growing provinces with an 8.8% growth rate, top of the national figures. Naturally, the local population has a high awareness of ASEAN and plays a role in China-ASEAN interactions. China is now working on an ambitious project to build a railway from Yunnan’s capital Kunming all the way to Singapore, passing through the Laotian capital Vientiane. The Kunming-Vientiane section was completed earlier this year.

Next to Yunnan is the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Bordering Vietnam, Guangxi’s capital city Nanning is known to be China’s “strategic gateway” to ASEAN. It is the origin of the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor, later incorporated into the Belt and Road framework. Naning now hosts the annual China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO), co-sponsored by the Chinese commerce ministry and that of the ASEAN member states as well as the ASEAN Secretariat. The Expo Center’ architecture is said to resemble the ASEAN emblem. One of Nanning’s latest projects is the China-ASEAN Financial Town, which aims to provide services and supporting infrastructure for China-ASEAN businesses.

Also closely related to ASEAN is the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, most renowned for its role as China’s gateway to the world and vice-versa. ASEAN is Hong Kong’s second-largest trading partner, and this city also serves as an entrepot for goods flowing between China and Southeast Asia. Most recently, the ASEAN-Hong Kong, China Free Trade Agreement was concluded and entered into force 2019.

Hong Kong is a former British colony and has long been a cosmopolitan destination, and many prominent Southeast Asian figures have spent a substantial amount of time in the city where the East meets West: Jose Rizal, National hero of the Philippines, spent some time as a doctor in Hong Kong; This is also where Malaysian business magnate Robert Kuok built his Kowloon Shangri-La Hotel, the second of his chain of highly successful luxury hotels.

In the years following WWII, Hong Kong continues to be highly connected with the British colonies in Southeast Asia. The University of Hong Kong (HKU), for example, has nurtured generations of doctors from Malaya. Revered chemist Rayson Huang and historian Wang Gungwu have both served as Vice-Chancellor at HKU, and spent a substantial portion of their academic career in Singapore and Malaysia before that.

Today, Hong Kong is home to hundreds of thousands of domestic workers, of which roughly half are from the Philippines, and another half comes from Indonesia, a tiny minority is composed of Thais, Nepalis, and other nationalities. Up to ten percent of the Philippine GDP comes from remittances of overseas workers.

A short ferry ride away from Hong Kong is the Macau Special Administrative Region, a former Portuguese colony and now a casino hub known as the “Las Vegas of the East”. While the Portuguese were one of the very first seafarers to set foot in Malacca and Nagasaki, Macau and Timor-Leste remained to be the only Portuguese colonies in East Asia towards the end of the 20th century.

Naturally, Macau became a platform for China to engage the Lusophone community, which Timor-Leste is a member of. In 2002, Macau became one of Timorese capital Dili’s very first sister cities. In 2003, China set up the Forum for Economic and Trade Co-operation between China and Portuguese-speaking Countries (Macao), also known as Forum Macao.

Both Hong Kong and Macau are under the sphere of influence of Guangdong, formerly known to the West as Canton. Southeast Asia is home to one of the biggest overseas Chinese populations, and many of them originated from this province. Cantonese popular culture, such as music and cinema, has become the collective memory of many ethnic Chinese adults in Southeast Asia.

Another significant group of Southeast Asian Chinese migrated from the Hokkien area known as Fujian province today. In Medan, for example, the spoken variety of the Chinese language is not Mandarin but Hokkien. More specifically, many overseas Hokkien descendants trace their ancestry back to the city of Xiamen, also known as Amoy. Partly due to this ancestral connection, Xiamen hosts hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian tourists each year, and CCTV calls it a “pivot city” connecting China to Southeast Asia.

Xiamen University (XMU) is one of the top universities in China and hosts a Center for Southeast Asian Studies dating as far back to 1956. The XMU main campus itself was founded by a Malayan Chinese, and in 2015 a Malaysia campus was established – marking the very first time a Chinese University has established a campus abroad. This was a result of coordination between the governments of both countries, after a 2011 meeting between Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

In addition to Guangdong and Fujian, the southernmost province of Hainan is also the origin of Chinese descendants in Southeast Asia, though a smaller proportion. It is an island which is also the namesake of Singapore’s famous chicken rice. The next “big thing” to look out for is the Hainan free-trade port. Said to be one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own initiatives, the port plans to “allow duty-free imports and lower taxes to attract investors.” This is also a rather ambitious plan as the goal is for the free port to be set up by 2025. In the future, Hainan may serve as an important avenue for Southeast Asian businesses making inroads into Mainland China.

The reality is that there is more than just “one” China – just like how Bali is different from Sunda, which is different from Padang, different parts of China have their history, ethnic groups, and culture. The heterogeneity of China requires a provincial framework of understanding, which lets us see China in a more nuanced manner, distinguishing between the different roles played by numerous regions – particularly with respect to the various Belt and Road projects In examining China’s engagements with Southeast Asia, it may be worth asking “how” and “from where?”. Guangxi and Yunnan’s proximity to Mainland Southeast Asia made them perfect hubs for connectivity projects; Hong Kong and Macau’s international status as well as their colonial heritage served as a bridge for China-Southeast Asia interactions; Guangdong and Fujian leveraged their connection to the Chinese diaspora abroad; finally, the southern tip Hainan is expected to play a bigger role with its free port project. This paradigm may give rise to more precise analyses of China’s engagement with Southeast Asia.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. Their research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and Southeast Asia’s external relations. They could be reached at their e-mail: trustonyuofficial@gmail.com

How Taiwan Could Capitalize on its New Southbound Policy

By Truston Yu (Picture: Wikimedia)

20 May 2020 marked the inauguration ceremony of Taiwan’s reelected President Tsai Ing-wen, signaling a continuation of her New Southbound Policy (NSP), which engages eighteen countries, including the ten ASEAN member states. This article looks into the Southeast Asia section of the NSP, exploring the narratives and actions Tsai may take if her administration is determined to deepen ties with this region.

Tsai was first elected in 2016, succeeding Ma Ying-jeou, who served two terms as president. Within months after her election, she rolled out the New Southern Policy to deepen ties with South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. Spanning across eighteen countries from India all the way to New Zealand, the NSP coincides with the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. It is however, a comprehensive policy directive – ranging from trade and technology to cultural exchanges and talent development. Notably, there are four strategic links: Soft power links, Supply chain links, Linking regional markets, People-to-people links.

Certain challenges are facing Taiwan today. To begin with, Taiwan is rather late in the game compared to its Northeast Asian neighbors. Japan has long played a significant role in modernizing Southeast Asia; China has been stepping up its Belt and Road Initiative which started in 2013; even South Korea has firmly established its presence in mainland Southeast Asia long before President Moon Jae-in’s New Southern Policy in 2017.

Even more fundamentally, Taiwan is not a widely recognized country, and Beijing has been rather aggressive in depriving Taipei of diplomatic recognition. Cambodia and Laos, which have been China’s closest partners in Southeast Asia, would likely pose an obstacle towards ASEAN engagement with Taiwan. Therefore, unlike Hong Kong, a unified policy within ASEAN for engaging Taiwan would be immensely difficult.

An often overlooked issue would be Taiwan’s stake in the South China Sea conflict. As a party to the dispute without official diplomatic relations with the others, Taiwan’s involvement adds to the complexity of the issue. The U-shaped line drawn on the South China Sea, otherwise known as the nine-dash line, actually began as the eleven-dash line proposed by Nationalist China before Chiang Kai-shek’s government moved to Taipei. Communist China simply inherited these claims, making slight modifications with regard to the Gulf of Tonkin.

Beijing naturally overshadows Taipei in the South China Sea dispute. Still, if the Nationalist faction were to prevail and retain control over China up till this day, they would be the one at odds with the ASEAN member states.

If Taipei is to demonstrate amity towards the ASEAN member states and willingness to participate in a rules-based international order, it would be wise for them to renounce the claims of its predecessor regime: it was already ruled by the Permanent Court of Arbitration to be inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Philippines v. China).

Despite the above obstacles, there are certain advantages that are unique to Taiwan. In the context of the South China Sea, Taiwan has set an example for the world with its conservation efforts on Dongsha Island. While the militarization of the South China Sea has often been associated with environmental destruction, the Dongsha Atoll houses a well-equipped scientific center that welcomes researchers and provides them with amenities for fieldwork. This has been dubbed by regional analysts as “coral diplomacy”.

Taiwan is one of the Four Asian Tigers, and many developing countries see their growth as a model to emulate; The cutting-edge semiconductor industry is one of Taiwan’s most unique advantages. This year, Taiwan has come under attention for their incredible performance in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. “Taiwan can help, Taiwan is helping” is the narrative they are currently presenting. In the second wave of mask diplomacy, over a million masks were donated to NSP countries.

Perhaps the unique advantage for Taiwan in engaging Southeast Asia would be the intricate links between the two places. They share a lot of historical connections, leading to two potential narratives in the present day: the Austronesian connection and the Chinese connection.

For Southeast Asian archaeologists, the biggest significance of Taiwan would probably be the “Out of Taiwan” model. A group of scholars believes that the Austronesian populations migrated South from Taiwan. Indeed, in terms of geographical distance, the Island of Taiwan is only some 700 kilometers from Luzon of the Philippines, even shorter than that between Jakarta and Indonesia’s new capital city.

Taiwan is home to sixteen officially recognized indigenous groups, which are ethnically akin to the populations in the Malay Archipelago. On one hand, archaeologists studying Southeast Asia would be amazed by the similarities between these populations; On the other hand, Bruneians, Indonesians, Malaysians, and Filipinos may be intrigued by the culture of the Taiwanese indigenous.

Southeast Asia is home to one of the most significant foreign Chinese populations, many of which are of Hokkien descent, closely related to the Taiwanese Chinese community in terms of language and culture. Some of the older generations of Chinese Southeast Asians still have ties with the Kuomintang or affiliated entities in Taiwan. Because of these connections, Taiwan is an incredibly familiar destination for the “Nanyang Chinese”. This connection extends to the present through popular culture: The 2001 Taiwanese TV series Meteor Garden gained massive popularity in Southeast Asia, while several famous Southeast Asian artists such as Namewee from Malaysia and JJ Lin from Singapore have been based in Taiwan. On this note, it is worth considering how pop culture from Taiwan constitutes a facet of soft power, albeit not as powerful as the Korean Wave – again, this is an aspect which Taiwan could capitalize on in the context of the NSP. The above examples show how the Chinese connection serves as a bridge between Taiwan and its neighbors to the south.

Indeed, the modern definition of “Southeast Asia”, primarily determined by ASEAN membership, is a somewhat arbitrary construct. The interpretation of “Southeast Asia as connectivity” looks at this region not only from a geographical aspect but the spheres of influence and trade with Taiwan, South India, and Southern China as well. Philip Bowring’s “Nusantaria” is an embodiment of this paradigm, stretching from Ceylon (Sri Lanka today) all the way to Formosa (Taiwan today). Under this framework, Taiwan can be seen as a part of Southeast Asia.

To further build up soft power in Southeast Asia, it is in Taiwan’s interest to show their willingness to abide by a rules-based international order. Regardless of the specific steps taken by Tsai, Taiwan is already headed towards greater interactions with Southeast Asia. However, they may even take it a step further to advance new narratives of Austronesian and Chinese connections. Not only would they bring Taiwan closer to Southeast Asia, but this also puts Taiwan within Southeast Asia itself. For Taiwan, the positive impacts are manifold – in addition to economic gains and greater security through building relations with multiple countries, it also consolidates their contribution towards the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. Their research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and Southeast Asia’s external relations. They could be reached at their e-mail: trustonyuofficial@gmail.com

Challenges and Prospects for Korea’s New Southern Policy

By Truston Yu (Picture: The Republic of Korea Cheong Wa Dae)

On 9 November 2017, President Moon Jae-in announced the New Southern Policy (NSP), a new “core diplomatic initiative” aimed at building closer ties between the Republic of Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states as well as India. Three years after the formulation of this policy, there remain certain obstacles for Korea’s agenda. On the flip side, Korea has great potential in deepening its ties with Southeast Asia.

There is a long history of interactions between Korea and the Southeast Asian region. The 30th Anniversary of ASEAN-ROK Dialogue Relations was celebrated in 2019 with a Commemorative Summit in Busan. Korea has participated in the ASEAN+3 grouping since 1997, and the ASEAN-Korea Centre was subsequently inaugurated in 2009. Despite such a track record, Korea’s role in Southeast Asia is often overshadowed by its two larger neighbors.

Southeast Asia is an emerging market with a combined population greater than the European Union and a gross domestic product (GDP) of around US$3 trillion in 2018. ASEAN is the fifth-largest economy in the world and will continue to grow. For these reasons, many countries have been eager to foster relations with the region. Japan is one of the earliest to do so, playing a significant role in the modernization of Southeast Asian countries; China has its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt and Road Initiative; even Taiwan has a New Southbound Policy since 2016.

The traditional focus of Korea’s foreign policy has been the participants of the Six-Party Talks: China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Since his election, Moon Jae-in has shown great interest in Korea’s neighbors to the south: “For the first time as a sitting president of the Republic of Korea, I visited all 10 ASEAN member states in just over two years.” The NSP was announced within months after Moon’s inauguration, and its current brochure states that they intend to elevate Korea-ASEAN relations to the “same level Korea maintains with the four major powers”.

However, Korea is rather “late in the game”; and unlike Belt and Road or the Asian Development Bank, Korea’s NSP still has not become a household name yet. Japan has established a long presence in the region, assisting with railroads and other infrastructure; the influential and wealthy Chinese diaspora network has acted as a bridge between their countries and Chinese corporations. The policy sector in Korea lacks people who are rooted in Southeast Asian expertise.

As one of the four Asian Tigers, Korea’s rapid economic growth is a role model that Southeast Asian countries are eager to emulate. The Mekong-Han River Declaration for Establishing Partnership for People, Prosperity and Peace was signed at the 1st Mekong-ROK Summit, featuring the Mainland Southeast Asian states: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam – a region which Korea has a bigger presence in as compared to Maritime Southeast Asia. It is as if the title of this Declaration alludes to Korea’s “Miracle on the Han”, hinting that collaboration with Korea could facilitate a “Miracle on the Mekong”.

The Korean Wave, also known as Hallyu, has taken root in the Southeast Asian region. In Thailand and Vietnam, the influences of Hallyu are evident in the styles of actors and singers. Southeast Asian e-commerce giant Shopee featured Korean girl group BLACKPINK in its birthday advertisement in Indonesia, which became controversial following complaints about the “failure to adhere to decency norms”. Immediately, this resulted in a huge backlash from Indonesian K-pop fans, again reflecting the popularity of Korean pop culture. As such, Korea could be said to have the highest cultural capital in Asia. This soft power leads to greater awareness of Korea among Southeast Asians, which is advantageous for its New Southern Policy.

On the other hand, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is also a unique opportunity for Korea to distinguish itself as a reliable partner. Korea is one of the most successful Asian countries in the fight against the virus. They once had the highest number of confirmed cases outside China, with the Southeastern city of Daegu referred to by some as “the Second Wuhan”. Through high transparency and aggressive testing, Korea has been able to squash the curve effectively. Seoul, the capital city, was never in a lockdown; Korea even managed to hold the National Assembly elections on 15 April as originally scheduled. Korea’s success has won international applause, and they are sharing technical expertise and resources to Southeast Asian countries. A webinar co-organized by the Korea Foundation and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, for example, featured the Korean Ambassador to Indonesia and a health expert from the Seoul National University College of Medicine. The private sector has also been lending a hand – the LG group donated some 50,000 PCR COVID-19 test kits to Indonesia. Though some may claim that there is a political factor, support from Korea for this pandemic could only be beneficial to Southeast Asia.

Korea expects to start its New Southern Policy 2.0 in 2021; the successful continuation and enhancement of the policy would require more connections built between Korea and Southeast Asia. It is imperative that both sides work together to nurture a new generation that is well-versed in both regions. Fortunately, the wave of Hallyu has already drawn many Southeast Asian youngsters to Korea, a proportion of which are scholarship recipients. As this generation enters the workforce, the NSP could be perpetuated by a new class of transnational leaders.


Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. His primary research interest is Southeast Asian Studies, including the concept of regional identity. He could be reached at their e-mail: trustonyuofficial@gmail.com


By Alifa Salsabila, SH (Picture: Council on Foreign Relations)

In April 2020, the Rohingyas were denied entry to Malaysia due to the country’s fear over Covid-19 transmission. Recently, around a hundred people of the Rohingyas reached Indonesian soil and are locally received by Indonesian citizens while the government has not yet decided any further legal nor diplomatic action aside from having them (the Rohingyas) in Aceh.

The Rohingyas, for the past few years, have become quite a concern of the international community. They were first labeled as “boat people,” signifying phenomena of hundreds of people struggling to reach the nearest shores outside of their home country, Myanmar, which later were identified as the “Rohingyas.” Geographically, the Southeast Asian neighboring countries such as India, Thailand, and Indonesia are the nearest runaways for them.

But it is miserable to learn that the phenomena of the ‘running away Rohingyas’—which have been discovered by international media for more than ten years ago—are still happening today as efforts on diplomatic progress to end oppressions toward the Rohingyas are running sluggish. At the regional level, ASEAN focuses to repatriate hundreds of the Rohingyas. But this effort would never be enough to resolve the case. This article would provide a different approach in helping out the Rohingyas under the ambit of international criminal law.

Roots of the Problem

There are many facets to explain the oppressions to Rohingyas. But all might agree that the oppressions toward them are rooted in the long-time dispute over Myanmar’s historical records that delivers a contestation over the Rohingyas’ legal status whether they are considered as an indigenous group of Myanmar or a group of foreign settlers coming to reside in the country throughout the nineteenth century (Irish Center for Human Rights, 2010).

Myanmar’s government and citizens refer to the Rohingyas as “Bengalis”. For them, the “Bengalis” are groups of Indian laborers and merchants migrating from India hundreds of years ago during the British colonial rule and making them (the Rohingyas) considered as “illegal immigrants” (Southwick, 2018) who take advantages to reside in Myanmar. The Rohingyas are thus known to be the most persecuted minority group in the world (Mohajan, 2018).

In its early days, the oppression toward the Rohingyas was led by an operation in May 1978. The government of Myanmar—having the military backup—launched a fatal operation called “Naga-Min” or translated as “Dragon-Min” Operation whose order was to dispel as many illegal immigrants as possible found residing in Myanmar, which by all means, included the Rohingyas. Arguably, the operation had the Rohingyas as their primary targets (Khairi, 2019). The operation has since then always led and developed the oppressions to the Rohingyas until today.

On the other hand, it is unfortunate to learn that the oppressions to the Rohingyas are driven and fueled by ‘Buddhist nationalism.’ Buddhist nationalism first emerged in Myanmar as a response to fight against the British colonial rule in the region. Back then, Buddhist nationalism significantly contributed to the country’s fight by mobilizing the people of Myanmar—who were referred as the Burmese—through identifying and embracing their Burmese culture whose majority were—and still are—Buddhists. Today, Buddhist nationalism is arguably no longer a pack of cultural values nor historical memories associated with Buddhism. Buddhist nationalism has been brought into contestation over ‘life and death’ matter in which the country’s economics and politics are taking significant parts in. It has now changed the cultural-historical records into narratives of an unbalanced local economic growth and security issues between Myanmar’s citizens in general and the Rohingyas. It is also learned that Buddhist nationalism, in a way, provokes the fear of Islamophobia that Moslem people in Myanmar—which fundamentally signifies the presence of the Rohingyas—would one day take over the country and thus people have to prevent this from happening.

As result, the Rohingyas have been suffering from many kinds of discrimination and a wide range of abuses for so many years. They are denied citizenship rights, limited access to education, healthcare, freedom of mobility, and even giving births (Khairi, 2019). In other cases, they are also suffering from deportation and forced transfer and displacement, rapes, and sexual violence. But, among these all, one form of oppression is less identified than the rest: forced labor that indicates enslavement. As a side note, both forced labor and enslavement are identified as crimes, international crimes, and forms of modern slavery (Siller, 2016).

Forced Labor: Enslavement as A Crime Against Humanity and A Form of Modern Slavery

Enslavement to the Rohingyas is carried out in the form of forced labor. According to the Rome Statute, enslavement is as a crime against humanity which is widely and systematically committed against civilians—which in the case of the Rohingyas is. As enslavement, ‘forced labor’ here is understood as a form oppression that does not target a particular person nor group of people, rather people in general as “civilian population.” The ‘forced labor’ here distinguishes itself from a ‘mere’ forced labor which purely targets workers based on exploitation for profit orientation (money and pleasure) of the employers that takes place in common workplaces.

The legal framework of forced labor as enslavement could be found in Article 7(2)(c) of the Rome Statute. In the Rome Statute, enslavement is explained as “the exercise of any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over a person and includes the exercise of such power in the course of trafficking in persons, in particular women and children.” Historically—prior to having the International Criminal Court (ICC) established—enslavement was included as a crime against humanity in the Article 6(c) of the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal, the Nuremberg Principles (Principle VI), Control Council Law No. 10, Article 5 of the statute of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and Article 3 of the statute of the International Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). It is known that in the ICTY, the judgment of the Krnojelac case decided that “enslavement constituted a crime under customary international law.” The Chamber reiterated that “forced labor, when operating outside of the permissible exceptions under international humanitarian and human rights law, is an established indicator of enslavement.”

In the Rakhine State, the enslavement of the Rohingyas is committed by NaSaKa, a security force formed by the Myanmar government (Southwick, 2018). The enslavement is carried out in the forms of labors that could be conducted seasonal or perennial, including (but not limited to) construction of roads, bridges, model villages and military facilities, camp maintenance, guard and security functions, forced cultivation and agricultural laboring, and even arbitrary taxation. The labors do not distinguish gender roles nor ages—a male or a female and a child or an adult—each of the Rohingyas has to endure the misconduct, difficulties, and mistreatment in their workplace (Farzana, 2017) which the government officials claim are done voluntarily. Consequently, this form of oppression situates the Myanmar authorities namely government officials and military apparatus as the alleged perpetrators (Lee, 2019). This situation seemingly answers questions upon why and how oppressions to the Rohingyas have been so legit to be carried out for long.

Furthermore, forced labor as enslavement is articulating a practice or form of “slavery.” According to Article 1(a) of the 1926 Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery, slavery is defined as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” Forced labor delivers a particular realm of modern slavery, slavery-like practices, or contemporary forms of slavery (Allain, 2012). Forced labor becomes the root to identify enslavement as a form of modern slavery, which in the ambit of international law, is customary and strictly prohibited. Having laws forbidding forced labor began along with the commitment of ending slavery as well as practices similar to it.

At the end of the day, even though Myanmar is a non-state party to the Rome Statute, the path to serve justice to the Rohingyas does not end just yet. International law—specifically, international criminal law—provides other options and mechanism to still hold these perpetrators responsible, through the ICC or other courts having international legal personality. As efforts to try the perpetrators from a non-state party at the ICC might sound difficult (but is not impossible), perhaps ASEAN needs to utilize its own body and commitment first. Because apparently, its very own regional mechanism is not able to take enough part in solving the problem, let alone addressing the roots of it, since everything seems to be blocked by the non-interference principle ASEAN is very proud to perform.

As part of the community, the Rohingyas should have had ASEAN as their utmost sanctuary following Myanmar’s failure in providing the protection needed. It has been a common sense in international law that even the non-intervention principle should never be applicable to exceptional circumstances as in humanitarian crises such as what happens to the Rohingyas. The forced labor of the Rohingyas—as a crime against humanity and a portrayal of modern slavery—is among exceptional circumstances needing immediate responses to overcome the emergencies. Therefore, ASEAN does need another approach in resolving the case.


The forced labor here is understood as enslavement. As enslavement, it requires perpetrators to have the crime widely and systematically committed to civilian population rather than to a particular person or group of people, as well as the emphasis on power as an oppression rather an exploitation—and that it targets the Rohingyas—making it categorized as a crime against humanity. At the same time, forced labor is included in slavery-like practices. Moreover, having enslavement as a form of modern slavery could also strengthen the legal framework of international criminal law to prosecute the perpetrators, end the oppression to the Rohingyas, and ‘serve justice to the table.’ Despites the diversities ASEAN has in carrying out the technicalities, forced labor as enslavement articulates modern slavery, common senses, and universalities which international community—including ASEAN—should admit and uphold.

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: alifafauziar@mail.ugm.ac.id.


Allain, Jean. (2012). The International Legal Regime of Slavery and Human Exploitation and its Obfuscation by the Term of Art: “Slavery-like Practice”. Civilian Research Development Foundation, 27-42.

Farzana, Kahzi Fahmida. (2017). Memories of Burmese Rohingya Refugees, Contested Identity and Belonging. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Irish Centre for Human Rights. (2010). Crimes against Humanity in Western Burma: The Situation of the Rohingyas.

Khairi, Aizat. (2019). Supply Chain and Human Trafficking of Rohingya Refugees in Malaysia. International Journal of Innovative Technology and Exploring Engineering 9, 4561-4565.

Lee, Ronan. (2019). Myanmar’s Citizenship Law as State Crime: A Case for the International Criminal Court. State Crime Journal 8(2), 241-279.

Mohajan, Haradhan Kumar. (2018). History of Rakhine State and the Origin of the Rohingya Muslims”. IKAT: The Indonesian Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 2(1), 19-46.

Siller, Nicole. (2016). Does International Law Distinguish between Slavery, Enslavement and Trafficking?”. Journal of International Criminal Justice 14, 405-427.

Southwick, Katherine. (2018). Straining to Prevent the Rohingya Genocide: A Sociology of Law Perspective. Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal 12, 119-142.

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: alifafauziar@mail.ugm.ac.id.

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: fadhilf50@gmail.com