Fighting Climate Change: A New Challenge for ASEAN Multilateralism

The Unique Challenges and Impacts of Climate Change on the ASEAN Member States 

Although climate change poses risks for populations globally, mitigating climate change is particularly crucial for Southeast Asian nations. Unfortunately, there are many reasons why Southeast Asia is uniquely vulnerable to the impending impacts of climate change.  Southeast Asian states have a high proportion of the population living in coastal areas vulnerable to rising sea levels. Additionally, the economy is uniquely dependent on natural resources like the agricultural and forestry sectors, which are greatly threatened by climate change (Asian Development Bank, 2009). The region also has a heightened level of biodiversity (three of the world’s designated “mega-diverse” countries are in ASEAN) (Megadiverse Countries, 2020), the preservation of which is crucial to the health of the environment in general as well as the agricultural sector. In fact, according to the Global Climate Risk Index (2018), four of the ten countries in the world most vulnerable to climate impacts are in the region (Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam). 

Such circumstances raise the potential for direct harmful impacts. The costs of damages, responsive measures to environmental changes, and threats to the agricultural sector are projected to cost up to 11% of GDP by the year 2100 by the Asian Development Bank (Asian Development Bank, 2015). This is especially problematic since many other nations of the world are not projected to lose as much GDP, which can cause a gap in development between Southeast Asia and other regions. Additionally, agricultural sector degradation will also reduce the yield of crops (particularly rice) and pose new food security challenges to the region (Asian Development Bank, 2009). The large coastal population will cause mass human migration and require extreme adaptive measures in coastal areas. Finally, climate change will likely increase the likelihood of natural catastrophes and health crises, which will cost many lives. 

The Current State of Climate Policy and Mitigation Strategies 

In general, ASEAN and the national governments of its member states can focus on two types of climate strategies: adaptation and mitigation. Adaptation aims to respond to or prevent the specific environmental impacts of climate change. Mitigation involves a big picture approach and aims to reduce the threat of these impacts by cutting emissions and halting the global process of climate change itself. Adaptation is a suitable policy strategy for national governments in ASEAN, as this strategy relies less on collective action. ASEAN has also created various working groups to facilitate collaboration and knowledge exchange regarding adaptation strategies where national governments struggle. The scope of these groups is quite comprehensive, including groups on environmentally sustainable cities (AWGESC), water resources management (AWGWRM), chemicals and waste (AWGCW), coastal and marine environment (AWGCME), environmental education (AWGEE), and natural resources and diversity (AWGNCB). There is also an ASEAN working group on climate change (AWGCC). However, this will be revisited in greater detail later. Overall, the ASEAN nations (with the help of regional collaboration) seem more suited to implement adaptation strategies than mitigation strategies. 

Mitigation strategies are a more complicated issue since reducing GHG emissions is a global imperative requiring international collaboration. The main policy is that Southeast Asian nations have committed to the UNFCCC Paris Agreement and have consequently submitted NDCs (nationally determined contributions). These NDCs commit the nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by transitions to clean energy. Regarding meeting these NDCs, Southeast Asian nations are relatively unique in fighting a mitigation battle on two different fronts. In 2000, 75% of GHG emissions from the region resulted from deforestation and land use (Asian Development Bank, 2009). Currently, around 55% of the region’s emissions are the result of land use and deforestation (Sok et al., 2020), while the other major source of emissions is the more commonly conceived source of emissions: the energy and transportation sectors (agriculture and other sectors trail further behind). This is projected to change further: Southeast Asia’s coal demand is expected to rise as electricity demand increases due to population growth and transit demands over the next century (International Energy Agency, 2019). Therefore, ASEAN member states’ mitigation strategies need to focus on the transformation of the energy sector and reducing deforestation impacts. 

Southeast Asia’s unique challenges to meeting NDC targets shows most prominently when looking at the NDC targets updated in 2020. So far, NDC targets in the region are modest when considering the goals of the Paris Agreement. Currently, Singapore is the only nation to set a target where GHG emissions will peak, and the target for this achievement is after 2030 (Overland et al., 2020Seah & Martinus, 2021). This makes Singapore the only member state with a long-term low emissions plan so far (Seah & Martinus, 2021). Additionally, the targets set by the current NDCs appear as if they may not even be met due to offset by the region’s growing energy demand (Overland et al., 2020). Overall, ASEAN seems to be less prepared for climate change mitigation, which is concerning due to the heightened risk of impacts in the region. 

Suggestions for Multilateral Cooperation in Mitigation Strategies 

Whether ASEAN nations are doing enough on the mitigation front beings forth a paradox: ASEAN itself is not a major source of emissions globally, and the region’s highest emitting country, Indonesia, is only the 10th most emitting country (UCSUSA, 2020). Still, Southeast Asia has more to lose than other nations if mitigation efforts fall short globally. So it needs to prioritize making a large commitment to global mitigation efforts. So far, the primary policy to achieve this (the NDCs) doesn’t appear to be very promising. 

What can be done about this? One possible solution would be to reassess ASEAN’s efforts to collaborate on reducing emissions. As mentioned before, the primary ASEAN body that does this is the ASEAN Working Group on Climate Change (AWGCC) (Seah & Martinus, 2021). However, like the other working groups, the AWGCC serves as a collaborative platform that prioritizes its Action Plan (Seah & Martinus, 2021). This Action Plan’s section on mitigation primarily focuses on knowledge exchange, promoting collaboration (vaguely), and exploring the possibility of a cap-and-trade system. It doesn’t mention direct ways to increase the NDC targets (ASEAN Cooperation on Environment, 2021). This leaves ample opportunities for improvement, and ASEAN may benefit from a much more proactive coordinating body to face climate change since states need encouragement to raise these targets. 

A more proactive coordinating body could do multiple things, such as increasing green financing in the member states to fund energy transition, therefore opening the opportunity to strengthen the NDC targets. The current action plan relies on external climate funds for financing, but coordinating an ASEAN-specific fund or bank may encourage more investments from the private sector of ASEAN nations that feel they have more a stake in regional mitigation efforts and encourage public and private collaborative investment.  Additionally, a unified ASEAN body on climate could potentially strengthen ASEAN’s dialogue capabilities and represent its grave interest in mitigation policy on the world stage. At the end of the day, ASEAN’s paradoxically small GHG emissions compared to its enormous interest in mitigation requires it to be a loud voice and exemplar in mitigation efforts worldwide. The place to start with this is with more multilateral cooperation and visibility. 




About Writer 

  • Kieta Mueller is an undergraduate Political Science and Economics student from the University of Hong Kong and the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently also an intern at ASEAN Studies Centre UGM. She can be contacted at 

Robbery and Piracy in SEA (South-East Asia): Protecting the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC)

The maritime element widely connected our world. Two-third of the Earth’s surface is covered by sea and ocean. Sea is not only providing huge natural resources which can be explored and exploited but also has a big geopolitical potential to support the distribution and trade between countries and continents. In the current globalized economy, where sea transportation has been so far modernized, the international trading system still uses 90% of the exchanges by using sea transportation (Sciascia: 2016). 

Herve Coutau-Begarie (2007) mentioned that the maritime domain has to be considered toward the frame called the “Maritime Triad”. The term was introduced to better understand the classification of the maritime domain, which is classified into three kinds of maritime space. (1) Maritime domain as a space of communication, there could be seen the international trade exchange that still uses the sea transportation, and according to TeleGeography, there is a fact that by more than 99% of international communications by the internet are carried and connected over fiber optic cables under the sea; (2) Maritime domain as a space of resources, the oceans have enormous reserves of energy and natural resources. Not only gas and oil, but the oceans are also a potential energy and renewable resource with a large number of minerals, fisheries, and many unexplored resources; (3) Maritime domain as a space for projection of power, the history shows that the sea has been the field of many wars in the past between countries, this proves how important the sea is for a country as one aspect that can be determined as a power.  

The maritime domain can be defined as the surface of Earth covered by sea and littoral areas, and geographically speaking, a “space”. In this specific “multidimensional space” that has been considered a frontier for centuries, human interactions occur, which makes the protection and securitization of the maritime domain a necessity (Parrain: 2012). By it means, the maritime domain is subjected to several violence and threats in its development which could be determined, including but not limited to piracy and armed robbery in the sea. According to the Wikidiff, piracy is the hyponym of the (nautical) robbery at sea, an act of a violation against international law and taking a ship away from the control of those legally entitled to it. But the different meanings of piracy and robbery could be determined based on UNCLOS III Article 101, in which piracy is defined as any illegal acts of violence which occur on high seas and beyond the jurisdiction of any state. Meanwhile, according to Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Article 1, armed robbery against ships is defined as any illegal acts of violence in a place within the contracting party’s jurisdiction over such offenses. By the risks and threats against the maritime domain, maritime security evolved where the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) is the most important or vital object to be protected.  

Protecting the SEA’s Sea 

According to Barry Buzan (1991), security in the maritime domain is a major stake for humanity. Moreover, in a world where the concept of security has deeply evolved since the end of the cold war. The threats and risks could also be determined on two conceptions: (1) Traditional threats, traditional maritime security threats in South-East Asia, are preeminent regarding the long history of territorial disputes in the area. Issues related to sovereignty, sovereign rights, and border governance are widely spread. They might threaten the stable situation in the region if not addressed in a good manner by the involved parties, in this case, the concerned states (Sciascia: 2016). Besides, other states excluded in the South-East Asia Region may interfere with the situation and escalated the conflict, such as China with their interest in the South China Sea, where most of the area is located in the South-East Asia Region. (2) Non-traditional threats, different from traditional threats, non-traditional threats cover many aspects of threats and risks. This threat covers more issues to be concerned not limited to a conflict between states, but also non-state actors involved in terrorism, piracy, robbery, illegal fishing, slavery, environmental issues, etc. This article will mainly discuss the conception of non-traditional threats in piracy and armed robbery in South-East Asia, especially amid the world-spread Covid-19 pandemic. 

Maritime Security Challenges in Southeast Asia: Analysis of International and Regional Legal Frameworks | Semantic Scholar


South-East Asia is strategically located at the crossing of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea and between two continents Australia and Asia. South-East Asia, as we know, have two countries, Indonesia and The Philippines that are archipelagic, Myanmar that adjacent directly to the Indian Ocean, Singapore, and Malaysia is located at the crossroads between the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea, then Vietnam and Brunei Darussalam are adjacent to the South China Sea. The region is home of importance oceans, seas, and straits that formed one of the busiest international Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs). Those facts above make the international trade between countries by the sea transportation revolving frequently in this region. 

Since the 1990s, South-East Asia has been considered the target area where piracy and armed robbery conduct against international law. Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia have initiated the joint patrol program in Malacca Straits, namely Malacca Straits Patrol, to tackle piracy in South-East Asia. Nevertheless, according to, new types of crimes may have occurred. High-value tankers can be targets if cybercriminals receive information from company servers or ship officials are complicit and give up information to pirates about the ship’s position or the cargo on board. On a side note, insurance fraud is common, with vessels submitting fake reports of attacks to get insurance pay-outs. 

According to the European Institute of Asian Studies, a number of the piracy and robbery activity in Southeast Asia has traditionally been concentrated around the vitally important Strait of Malacca shipping artery. The impact of the 2004 tsunami (which destroyed many pirate hideouts and small vessels in the area), along with effective counter-piracy measures undertaken in the Strait since 2005, has shifted the focus of these activities towards the coasts of Singapore and Malaysia, and in particular to other sections of the traditionally risky Indonesian waters.  

Until now, piracy and robbery activities in the Southeast Asia Region have not been properly resolved by countries involved in the protection of the sea lanes of communication. In 2020, following the Covid-19 pandemic that affects the development of further economic in South-East Asia into desperation, the number of piracy and armed robbery at sea cases in the Singapore Strait hit its highest mark in half a decade, with its 34 incidents forming the bulk of cases in Asia’s waters in the year. Based on the article in the Critical Maritime Routes Programme, as a matter of facts, highlighted by ReCAAP ISC Executive Director Masafumi Kuroki at the 12th Nautical Forum on 15 January 2021, there was a significant increase in ‘actual incidents’ of piracy last year (+17% compared to 2019) in South-East Asia. The most worrisome aspect of this development is that incidents have increased in various locations, such as Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, Viet Nam, the South China Sea, and the Singapore Strait. The broad range of these locations is emblematic of the regional scope of the problem.   

In a pandemic situation that spreads worldwide, communication and distribution of humanitarian and logistical assistance from one country to another for handling the virus outbreaks also enliven international sea trade routes. Moreover, following the economic crises caused by the pandemic raises social symptoms, increasing the criminality rate. The SLOCs are inseparable from this situation, the crime rate caused by the high unemployment rate, forcing coastal communities to turn to crime as a means to fund themselves and their families. Some of the funds to conduct patrols in marine areas prone to piracy and robbery are being cut to overcome the pandemic. This is a dilemma that must be wisely decided and determined by the government. 

The situation on protecting and securing the SLOCs in South-East Asia concerned the states in the region and states that conduct the international trade exchanges by sea transportation through South-East Asia. For instance, the European Union eek more active involvement in activities ensuring smooth trade and securitization of the SLOCs. According to the Critical Maritime Routes Programme, the current EU-ASEAN Plan of Action reaffirms the importance of strengthened cooperation on maritime security issues, such as in combatting sea piracy, armed robbery against ships, as well as encouraging cooperation to address the maritime-related problems comprehensively. In 2003, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which was proposed and sponsored by the United States to help the securitization of the SLOCs in South-East Asia, was rejected by Indonesia. The initiative was argued that it might interfere with the state’s sovereignty and potentially threaten Indonesian security (Sciascia: 2016). 

So, what is the best way to overcome this issue and wisely protect the SLOCs, while the pandemic situation must end? Combating piracy is consequently a difficult herculean task. Beyond the joint patrol system to the prone sea areas of piracy and robbery, it requires the implication of wise and strong policy by the government. The cooperation and coordination include but are not limited to the states in the region, the external actors (states outside the region), even if it is possible to involve the international organization to promote communication and information exchanges to guarantee security and freedom of shipping overseas. The international coordination mechanism should be conducted properly and avoid the intervention to areas that could increase the tension and escalate the conflict between actors. The cooperation between the actors and stakeholders does not mean and need the same role and responsibilities in the securitization of the maritime domain, or specifically the SLOCs. Every actor and stakeholder have their respective portions and roles in achieving the goal of the securitizations. 



  • Sciascia, Alban, “Securing Ports and Se Lanes of Communication: A Herculian Task”, Penerbit Aswaja Pressindo, Yogyakarta, 2016 
  • Coutau-Begarrie, Herve, “The Globalized Ocean: Geopolitic of Seas in the 21st Century), Economica, 2007. 
  • Parrain, Camille, “High Sea: A Space at the Frontier of Geographic Research), EchoGeo, 2012, no. 19 
  • Buzan, Barry, “People State and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post Cold War Era”, ECPR, 2007(first edition 1991) 
  • Hribernik, Miha, “Countering Maritime Piracy and  Robbery in Southeast Asia: The Role of the ReCAAP Agreement” European Institute of Asian Studies, Briefing Paper 2013/2 
  • “Piracy and armed robbery at sea in Southeast Asia: the long-lasting legacy of COVID-19”, 2 February 2021,  

About Writer

  • Syukron Subkhi is a Media Publication Officer at ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Gadjah Mada. He holds the bachelor’s degree of Social Sciences majors in International Relations with particular focuses on International Organizations, Socio-CulturalSecurity and Development Studies. 

The Youth Resistance Towards Myanmar’s Military Coup: Efforts of Young Generation Protest Through Art

What is Happening in Myanmar? 

On the 1st of February, Myanmar’s military forces enacted a state of emergency and began a coup d’état. This circumstance occurred because they claimed that the November 2020 general election results were null and void, stating it was “election fraud”. However, according to the board of elections, there is no supporting evidence to back up these allegations. The military also declares its intention to hold a new election once the year-long state of emergency is lifted. This coup took place a day before Myanmar’s Government was scheduled to swear the oath of members elected in last year’s election, preventing this from happening. Following the detainment of President Win Myint and the State’s Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, along with several executive members of the current National League for Democracy (NLD). 

 Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been afflicted by political turmoil since gaining independence in 1948. During the country’s current state, a human rights organization in Myanmar is urging the United Nations to place an embargo on the Southeast Asian country to prevent its military from using weapons towards civilians. The Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) issued a statement saying, “The international community must strongly sanction military officials and military-owned organizations and enforce a global arms embargo.” However, the international institutions considered the coup a part of Myanmar’s internal conflict and constitutional crisis, which resulted in the ending of civil government and the imposition of the military regime. Nevertheless, the coup has sparked many demonstrations and civil protest attempts in various parts of Myanmar. Efforts of resistance have also been initiated, particularly by the young generations of Burma, to express their outrage addressed to the authoritarian military regime. 

The Youth Strikes Back 

The Myanmar military’s atrocities began with the shooting of a young woman during a public protest rally. After being shot in the head, Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing became the first protester to die in Myanmar’s anti-coup demonstrations. She is the first martyr in Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement, spreading throughout the nation until now. According to rights organizations, her wound was consistent with one caused by direct ammunition. As the picture of the protester being cradled after being shot went viral, her death has caused even more outrage against the authorities. Her image has been painted and hung on massive posters from overpasses in Yangon, becoming one of the signature motifs of an already visually rich and creative protest movement. 

Following the incident, young artists across Burma are using their talents to spread the word of the resistance Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) while facing internet outages, strong military presence, and nighttime raids and arrests. “Art is not only a tool against the government but also a record to reflect on the current situation,” said the Yangon-based artist to Artnet News, Khin Zaw Latt. For instance, members of the Myanmar Cartoonists Association marched through the streets of Yangon, carrying cutouts of animated characters and making political cartoons condemning the military’s actions. 

Meanwhile, the Association of Myanmar Contemporary Art held an art-making protest in Yangon in favor of CDM, as well as a group photography project portraying people making the three-finger tribute in opposition to the coup. The hand gesture has become a symbol of resistance, both among crowds of protesters and in artworks influenced by the movement in regards to Suzanne Collins’ dystopian young adult series “The Hunger Games,” which is about a revolt against an oppressive government. Moreover, artist Khin Zaw Latt arranged a collaborative artwork with 120 creators who submitted their interpretation of the salute. The collaborative mural is dotted with ECG heartbeat lines to complete the sense of humanity and the longing for the freedom of life. 

Leadership in Times of Crisis Communication: The Youth Resistance Towards Myanmar's Military Coup Halaman all -

A collection of paintings by Khin Zaw Latt supporting Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement. Photo courtesy belongs to the artist. 

To put a stop to the demonstrations and to spread awareness, the government imposed a nationwide internet blackout and declared martial law, which made gatherings of more than five people illegal. However, the abundance of graphics and other artworks in the Southeast Asian nation demonstrates that protest is still alive and well. On the Art for Freedom (Myanmar) website page (, artists collaboratively present their creations, including hundreds of downloadable protest artworks. Many of the paintings are red, portraying the color of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party. At the same time, others depict Burmese people banging pots and pans in a loud protest against the coup, which is culturally used to keep out the demon. Both of them show a willingness to re-establish democracy. 

Through artworks, prints, and rallies, the youth of Burma also deliver their message on various social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook. Soup Not coup, a new account on Twitter where the writer expressed their insults and witticisms are laced with sharp insights into life in Myanmar, is also part of the anti-military alliance. “These little green men (coup leaders) are so steeped in their tea that they think they are the best flavor, but a dictatorship is not what we ordered,” the group said on Twitter to Nikkei Asia. Nobel Aung was pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of creativity that has flooded Myanmar’s streets as well as social media feeds. He and his younger brother started a private Facebook group called Art for Freedom (Myanmar) on the 4th of February to bring artists and protesters together. In only ten days, the organization grew to 6,000 people, and it now has a website where artwork can be downloaded for free as long as it is utilized to oppose the coup. 

These efforts initiated by the youngsters of Burma surely made a significant impact on spreading awareness of the military’s ruthless regime. Through these cultural movements, young artists and writers have expressed themselves in various art forms freely. Resulting in mass engagements and encouragements for others to do the same, fight for their freedom and strive for justice in Myanmar. 



Head, J., 2021. Myanmar coup: Woman shot during anti-coup protests dies. [online] BBC News. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 March 2021]. 

Jiang, E., 2021. Woman shot protesting Myanmar military takeover dies. [online] Mail Online. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 March 2021]. 

Win, T., 2021. Young, creative and angry: Myanmar’s youth pushes back. [online] Nikkei Asia. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 March 2021]. 

Cuddy, A., 2021. Myanmar coup: What is happening and why?. [online] BBC News. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 March 2021]. 

Turan, R. and Kartal, A., 2021. Activists call for sanctions in wake of Myanmar coup. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 12 March 2021]. 

Cascone, S., 2021. After a Military Coup, Artists Across Myanmar Are Making Protest Art to Share Their Struggle for Democracy With the World—See Images Here. [online] Artnet News. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 March 2021]. 

Tan, Y., 2021. Myanmar coup: How citizens are protesting through art. [online] BBC News. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 March 2021]. 

Beech, H., 2021. Paint, Poems and Protest Anthems: Myanmar’s Coup Inspires the Art of Defiance. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 12 March 2021]. 

Hayes, S., 2021. How Myanmar’s Creatives Are Fighting Military Rule with Art. [online] Time. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 March 2021]. 

Mitman, T. (2018). The art of defiance: Graffiti, politics and the reimagined city in Philadelphia. Intellect Books. 


About Writer

  • Berliana Azka Afina is a Research Lead on ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community at UGM ASEAN Society 

ASEAN’s Diplomacy: Walking A Tightrope

By Tunggul Wicaksono

Since the military ousted and detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the series of events in Myanmar poses several challenges to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; the ununified response from its member states and how to formulate a middle-ground policy, not to mention the vagueness principle of non-interference. In this regard, ASEAN’s diplomacy has been put to the test, while its reputation is at stake.

Up to now, more than 800 people had lost their lives following the nationwide unarmed protests against the junta. Earlier, Myanmar’s government declared martial law that described those defying military authority there as terrorists and set up a military tribunal for attacks on the security forces. Despite the military crackdown and the mobility pressure, ASEAN has not taken an immediate response to the crisis. The United Nations Security Council has condemned the violence, nonetheless.

The coup can be considered as tarnishing of ASEAN’s image among the reportage of mass violence and human rights violation. This, in turn, hinders the pursuit of a forward-looking strategy, including encouraging ASEAN member states to safeguard human rights as mentioned in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. The way of thinking that some conflicts are happened to be “internal affairs” rather than to take collective action is proof that ASEAN was not adequately prepared for such circumstances.

During that time, ASEAN had not recognized regional stability, which depends on human rights and the rule of law. When the Informal ASEAN Ministerial Meeting convened on 2 March 2021, the bloc failed to successfully condemn the coup, let alone address human rights violations. The chair’s statement seemed to only recall the normative principles of the ASEAN Charter without making any relevance to the ongoing crisis.

However, Indonesia’s initiative to discuss the situation in Myanmar through a Leaders’ Meeting has taken ASEAN’s diplomacy to the next level. All but three (The Philippines, Thailand, and Laos) leaders of the ten ASEAN member states attended the summit. The leaders gathered in Jakarta with Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, a commander-in-chief who led the military takeover and plunged Myanmar into unrest and turmoil.

Afterward, the meeting issued “Five-Point Consensus”; 1) there shall be immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and all parties shall exercise utmost restraint, 2) constructive dialogue among all parties concerned shall commence to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people, 3) a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair shall facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, with the assistance of the Secretary General of ASEAN, 4) ASEAN shall provide humanitarian assistance through the AHA Centre and 5) the special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned.

On a side note, Indonesia could have taken further action by investigating crimes against humanity in Myanmar. As a state party to the UN Convention Against Torture, Indonesia has a legal obligation to prosecute or extradite a suspected perpetrator on its territory. But, given the circumstances, its political strategy might not be as effective as buying more time for the prolonged crisis.

Meanwhile, regarding the fifth point, there is a lot of criticism triggered by escalating conflicts, democracy setbacks, and severe human rights violations. None of the member states can guarantee the effectiveness of the policy recommendation. First, the concerning factors could be to what extent ASEAN should intervene, considering its members’ belief in non-interference. Sadly, this concern was expressed by a neighboring country, Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who said that Myanmar’s crisis is “their internal affairs”. Thailand worries more about the coronavirus outbreak due to the coup at the borders, despite solid evidence of military atrocities.

Second, free-riding countries. Some member states may become more reluctant to rely on other countries for strategic approaches while contributing to no action. ASEAN must treat Myanmar’s crisis as a non-zero-sum game, and by this approach, of course, there is no universally accepted solution. But one thing for sure, the mediator needs to find a common interest. It could be by maintaining regional stability that is beneficial for all, leveraging ASEAN’s human rights mechanism to ensure the protections that meet international standards, or, more specifically, buying more time to hold an election based on democratic principle assisted by ASEAN’s envoys. Hence, win-win solution.

Until this time, ASEAN has yet to compromise the reconciliation mission to Myanmar, let alone to plan a strategic resolution. Most recently, a scheduled trip between Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Dato Erywan Yusof and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi to prepare envisioned dispatch of a special envoy to Myanmar has derived a fatal blunder. They had already crossed the line when the meeting with Gen. Hlaing was not accompanied by prior notification and briefed by ASEAB foreign ministers. They also failed to meet in person with the country’s detained leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Moreover, the ASEAN Secretariat released a report following the visitation and mentioned the assumed titles of Myanmar junta Gen. Hlaing, indicating an open recognition of the junta. At the same time, ASEAN only maintains its recognition of the Aung San Suu Kyi government. The report was later removed eventually. Shortly, the diplomatic mission somehow turned into a backfire operation.

Regarding the special envoy, ASEAN has entrusted Brunei Darussalam to pick the candidate, although the process is relatively stagnant. One way or another, Myanmar must accept the candidacy as soon as possible. The more time wasted, the higher possibility that the consensus left unimplemented.

Such developments to tackle Myanmar’s turbulence have shed light that ASEAN lacks a vivid strategy and lacks preparation. In some way, ASEAN’s diplomacy needs to be reinvented. This could be as plain as recognizing state-to-state relations. Accommodating attitude towards the other, finding the gap in between, and encouraging collective action could also be a breakthrough in outreach efforts. Given the narrative, there is still a chance to restore ASEAN’s credibility to manage the crisis properly, rather than persistently hold a never-ending talkfest.


About Writer

  • Tunggul Wicaksono is a Research Manager at ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada. He can be reached through e-mail at

Refugees and Asylum Seekers in ASEAN: Suggested Remedies

By Yulida Nuraini Santoso and Gading Gumilang Putra

Human rights groups worldwide are startled by the regression of support towards refugees and asylum seekers. Malaysia had recently deported over 1000 migrants to Myanmar, notwithstanding Kuala Lumpur High Court orders to stop repatriation in fear of further persecution upon arrival temporarily. This number includes a number of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identified persons of concern (POC) belonging to five ethnic minorities facing persecution in Myanmar. Despite claims that the deportees excluded refugees and asylum seekers and that all had agreed to return voluntarily, the truth remains that Malaysia has hindered international human rights organizations from accessing its immigration detention centers since August 2019. There is no clarity regarding the status of the deportees and the motive behind such a decision.

Malaysia has yet to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention. It does not recognize asylum seekers nor refugees but has allowed a large population to stay on humanitarian grounds. It hosts at least 175,000 refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom come from Myanmar but have not been granted any legal status and remain unable to work or enroll in government schools. Due to this, refugees and asylum seekers who have been granted entrance have been detained as “illegal migrants” and face the risk of being deported despite being registered by the UNHCR as Persons of Concern (POC). In the past, Malaysia has also been known to refusing the arrival of boats carrying desperate Rohingya refugees when its neighboring recipient country, Indonesia, decided to welcome them in Aceh. Malaysia claims this was necessary to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

Myanmar recently peaked in headlines due to the coup d’état. In early February, the military seized control after the general election won Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party. This caused the military-backed opposition to claim that the results were frauds. With the military now in power and the recent deportation setting a precedent, we question why ASEAN has continuously failed to address this recurring problem? Despite Suu Kyi’s popularity, the civilian government has repeatedly refused to cooperate meaningfully with UN rights investigators’ pursuit of accountability for violations, including the persecution of refugees and asylum seekers causing them to flee. To this end, what workable actions can international communities take part in to move the issue of refugees and asylum seekers higher on the agenda of ASEAN policymakers?

The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) is the only body to respond to the growing issue of refugees. The body was officially inaugurated in October 2009 with the initial focus on human rights promotion, but not the investigation of complaints of human rights violations. Being the first and a milestone for ASEAN at the time, it was deemed “the most prominent regional cooperation group in [South] East Asia”[1]. However, little has been done to develop a coordinated, comprehensive, and actionable plan that addresses both the proximate problems, such as the ongoing boat crisis and root problems concerning the Rohingya, to this day. Many argue that the root cause for the lack of response is influenced by the ASEAN Way.[2] Others blame AICHR’s Terms of Reference (TOR),[3] where a formal mandate to sanction human rights abusers is missing. Instead, it plays the role of mediator with civil society organizations (CSOs), formulates strategies to promote confirmation of international legal instruments, build capacities of member states, offer consultative services, and participate in conferences, discussions, and consultations.

Most of AICHR’s activities are held by organizations, forums, or networks that have helped them remain relevant, horizontally. However, these engagements are not as in-depth as most would prefer, as AICHR is restricted in the engagements they may conduct. To help, the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre), the nearest ASEAN entity to resemble a working leg of ASEAN’s humanitarian approach, distributes relief or conducts need assessments where needed. Like AICHR, their mandate pivots on the consensus of all member states. Therefore, it is not a surprise that AICHR will continue to be questioned in the future if its TOR is not reviewed to include meaningful and workable clauses. The process of mainstreaming human rights in ASEAN is crucial as it depends on this. In the long run, it must establish itself as the most authoritative organ for human rights protection in the region if it wishes to remain relevant.

Nonetheless, there are several available opportunities to help remedy this situation. Firstly, to appropriately address the statelessness of Rohingya through ASEAN mechanisms, particularly the Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR) from an international humanitarian point of view. The topic has been avoided mainly due to sensitivity. However, without appropriately responding to the core of the issue, namely persecution, refugees and asylum seekers will continue to live in limbo. In 2019, two high-level visits to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, were conducted to conduct a Preliminary Needs Assessment (PNA). However, these visits were government-facilitated, focused on the repatriation without addressing the potential harm of further persecution, and had not consulted international humanitarian agencies working directly with refugees and asylum seekers themselves. As a result, the assessments have been heavily criticized by global humanitarian communities as being “misleading.”

Secondly, a regional instrument or body is to be established to provide protection specifically to refugees if any meaningful change is to occur. This body shall consult with experts, relevant agencies, CSOs, academics, and especially the refugee community to achieve solutions targeted at emergency responses, access to healthcare, livelihood initiatives, alternative pathways of migration, dignified repatriation, etc.

Thirdly, to call on states who have yet to grant access to international agencies, government social agencies, and NGOs for refugees/asylum seekers who are denied entry to the territory, the necessary legal representations. This should also include monitoring mechanisms for detainees.

Fourthly, to continue to work with governments through capacity-building programs on access to remedies and asylum. This can be aimed at judicial bodies, refugees, paralegals, and community interpreters.

Fifthly, to advocate for governments to consider providing civil documentation, such as birth certificates, and, further, to recognize the refugee status documented by the UNHCR. It is worth noting that the provision of birth certificates for refugees born in receiving countries is not necessarily a citizenship grant. It simply allows for protection and serves as a formal recognition of one’s refugee status.

Lastly, ASEAN must heighten its engagement with the public to address issues of refugees and asylum seekers. This includes partnerships with universities to create awareness and take part in protection measures and initiate solutions such as Model ASEAN meetings (MAM) initiated by the ASEAN Foundation. Governments can also consider issuing policies based on policy briefs, joint statements, Focus Group Discussions (FGDs), and consultations.



[1]     Gamez, Kimberly Ramos. 2017. “Examining the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR): The Case Study of the Rohingya Crisis”. Tilburg University, Netherlands. Pg. 40 citation no. 157.

[2]    Op.Cit. Pg. 7 citation no. 5.

[3]    Up.Cit. Pg. 8 citation no. 13.


About writers:

  • Yulida Nuraini Santoso is the Managing Director of the ASEAN Studies Center at Universitas Gadjah Mada, with researches and areas of interest surrounding the ASEAN Political-Security Community and transnationalism. The researcher can be reached through
  • Gading Gumilang Putra is the National Information and Advocacy Officer for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Indonesia. His work includes advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers and can be contacted at


Norms Competing, East or West in ASEAN

By Seon Young Yang

Political pundits, scholars, and diplomats have been inculcated with steadfast notions, i.e., norms and rules-based manners. Led by the school of liberalism, the values of multilateralism and international cooperation have been kept for decades as the ground rules to deter unnecessary bloodshed. Multilateralism, arguably spearheaded by the West, has been the unwavering doctrine in which the international and regional organizations, including the UN, EU, and ASEAN, have followed suit.

The invincible truth is that nothing lasts forever. Norms and rules-based frameworks are no exception. The United States, for example, the champion of these notions, cannot avoid reprimand as the Trump administration has caused upheavals in the multilateral trading system and in the international pledges to protect the green planet. Another champion, the United Kingdom, decided to leave the EU and went through a years-long divorce process.

While the West has been busy in their backyards, China has been quietly but substantially growing its power aspiring to become one of the superpowers, nudging the United States. Emerging hegemonies have cast a shadow looming in the region and elsewhere. Globalization and multilateralism have been recently challenged, and Asian countries, including ASEAN, have been almost pushed near the edge to choose the US or China. Nosy parkers even posit that ASEAN is stuck in the strategic proxy war between the US and China. Is this true? Recently, Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong expressed his modest but well-thought answers on this matter with BBC Interview.

The prime minister does not “hope the time would come” to choose either one or the other as the defining influence in the region. Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, have extensively interconnected with the two superpowers. While ASEAN has been cautious as per usual, the US and their allies, mostly in western Europe and Japan, have leaned towards the US to counterbalance China’s rise under the fashionable term, the Indo-Pacific. In order to gain legitimacy to empower the Indo-Pacific logic, not only the US but also the UK, Germany, and France have become proactive to promote the ideas and advance their diplomatic strategies, heralding the “free and open” concept, deep-rooted norms in the liberalism. As reflected in the article published in Foreign Affairs (Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi, January 2021) early this year, the Biden’s administration is expected to focus on regaining the US’s image in multilateral orders. The two largest member states of the EU, Germany and France, have also reiterated to enhance partnership with the Indo-Pacific countries. This month, the UK government has finally issued the Global Britain in a competitive age (March 2021), the strategy heavily focused on again, Indo-Pacific. The vivid commonality of all these Indo-Pacific strategies by the West caters down to respect and uphold norms and the rules-based orders in free and open manners.

Unlike the EU, ASEAN has actively engaged external parties in the so-called ASEAN-led mechanism, such as APT, EAS, ARF, and ADMM-Plus. ASEAN Centrality often leads to a chain of criticism of being vague and inefficient. Consensus and unanimity are the core of the ASEAN Centrality. In the second layer, ASEAN’s common position and stance have supported such a decision-making process. ASEAN often refers to itself as a family of 10 members, and they finalize their common position before vis-à-vis many in the regional meetings where the US and China also engage. Those who prefer straightforwardness can barely stand on the ASEAN Centrality, but so far, ASEAN has demonstrated a diplomatic adroitness to make everyone seemingly happy.

ASEAN has encouraged external parties, including its nearest neighbors, China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, to engage in the regional matters. Naysayers can argue that ASEAN is incapable of moving their regional integration forward, which is why external engagement matters much. Nevertheless, ASEAN has amplified the sphere of a new age of diplomacy where different parties across the region can meet at least once a year to exchange views and explore ways forward. ‘Manners maketh men’ suits the ASEAN way. ASEAN will never degrade any country or make it lose face. China has advanced its influence in the region for the last few years, and the BRI initiative has consolidated its economic muscle even more, particularly in ASEAN. Japan, for example, has always been respected by ASEAN, as reflected in the 2021 ISEAS Survey. Japan is even considered one of the most preferred nations to counterbalance US-China rivalry in the region and the EU. Heralded by its enamoring K-Wave, Korea has gained popularity in the region, especially among younger generations.

Looking at the figures, ASEAN Plus Three reached USD 869.1 billion, equivalent to 31% of ASEAN’s total merchandise trade volume as of 2018 (ASEAN Secretariat, April 2020). ASEAN is economically intertwined with their neighbors in East Asia noticeably. However, ASEAN does not block the gate for other guests who wish to sign formal relationships. Despite the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, ASEAN welcomed France and Italy as Development Partners along with Germany and Chile last year. Cuba and Columbia signed the Treaty of Amity. There are more stakeholders than ever in the region. According to the 2021 ISEAS Survey, ASEAN prefers the US and other western countries, noticeably the EU. Economically, China is de facto the most influential power, but politically, the U.S. and the western influences still matter significantly. Thus, ASEAN has hedged between the norms and approaches from the East and the West. ASEAN will probably not whither its neutral position, at least in the foreseeable future. It is premature to tell which one is better, but ASEAN will again develop an inclusive concept to make every party satisfactory, as witnessed in ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN has paved its way to survive and develop regional integration for more than five decades. Some political pundits still pompously neglect ASEAN as the talk shop of insignificant emerging nations in the southern hemisphere. Despite all odds, ASEAN has achieved external parties’ engagement and has made ASEAN relevant to various stakeholders. ASEAN has embraced every guest who wishes to tie a knot, and it will continue its practice. Those guest countries have expressed and unveiled new norms to attract ASEAN’s attention. What can be reassured is that there will be competing norms with ASEAN’s subtle permission, but ASEAN reigns in the throne to cherry-pick the best options available no matter how hard external parties accentuate their norms.


Seon Young Yang (Ms)

Seon Young Yang is a Senior Research Officer in the Mission of the Republic of Korea to ASEAN in Jakarta (2013-Present). Her academic qualifications are BA in Linguistics (University of East Anglia, the UK, 2006-9), MSc in European Studies and Communication Science (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium, 2011-12), and Graduate Diplomat in International Relations (London School of Economics, the UK, 2016).

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The Unnerving Act East Policy and the Uninterested ASEAN

By Habibah Hasnah Hermanadi, M.A (Photo:

India has been “acting east” for quite a while now but how does the East respond? Well, if the East in this context can be represented by Southeast Asia then not much. The annual State of Southeast Asia 2021 report that was recently published by the ASEAN Study Centre captured the degree of distrust ASEAN and Southeast Asian countries have toward India. Where we can see how India stood up among other influential foreign powerhouses. Southeast Asia warmed up to Japan and European Union. In the past, the countries distanced itself from the United States under President Donald Trump, but that view is currently changing presumably affected by the newly inaugurated President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris marking new beginnings and democratic hope. However, India’s persistence in making a more significant presence had been viewed more cautiously with 50.8% proclaiming of no confidence and less than 19% of confidence. It had slightly decreased from 53.5% in 2020. However, the number had increased quite drastically in the last couple of years considering it used to be around 45.6% in 2019.

Whither India in Southeast Asia? 

The report highlighted there was greater distrust Southeast Asian countries have for China. Nonetheless, there was not much momentum gained by India in the face of such change. Prior to this, India claimed to be willing and able to take this leadership role when it comes to ASEAN, but as it was reflected in the status quo it does not seem to go to that direction. With that being said, India is still an outsider. State-wise in the context of foreign policies this is rather expected. Factually, the relation is considerably at its fetal state if it is compared to Japan’s affluence in the Southeast region.

Why the distrust? While the survey emphasized the question of whether India will do “the right thing” this does not reflect well on ASEAN. India should evaluate their strategy, perhaps this idea of rekindling kinship and including India in the Southeast Asian affairs are not going as they intended to be. With a lack of foreign policy maneuvers that are catered to the socioeconomic-cultural and values that are centering Southeast Asia. New Delhi’s pragmatism might not work for this case. The distance remained, India should not be using the same strategy as they do in South Asia as it is in Southeast Asia.

Time for New Delhi’s Softer’ Side

For so long, New Delhi does not shy away from various military and security-related agreements in Southeast Asia. In Myanmar this commitment is visible, India agreed to supply arms and equipment needs for joint border patrol in addition to Indian warships that make regular calls at Myanmar’s ports. Recently at the India-Vietnam Summit, the two signed seven agreements in areas as diverse as defense, petrochemicals, renewable and nuclear energy furthering their agreement for cooperation between their defense industries in a total of 600 million USD. In another case, the Philippines expressed their deepening interest in attaining the first India-Russia Cruise missile or BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, the purchase is deeply motivated by their concern of China active movement in the South China Sea. In Indonesia, the continuation of India-Indonesia Coordinated Patrol (IND-INDO CORPAT) remains vital to India’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) vision that heavily maritime reliant.

Comparing India’s determination within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad, a forum that is manifested out of security purposes, is not alike with engaging with ASEAN or Southeast Asia. All Quad members willingly bridge their interest through a common security objective that is to balance the ever-growing presence of China. India cannot enter ASEAN through the same means. If Indo-Pacific is still relevant until today, then diversify the strategy in approaching each member state and speak the language of its community. For all they know the majority of ASEAN countries declared the concept of Indo-Pacific to be unclear and still need further elaboration. The distance pertained due to the inability to translate the ASEAN way that is heavy on values and political characteristics. This went beyond mere speaking the political language among the states but also comprehend the socio-cultural response ASEAN member countries have in viewing external actors. Not until India had successfully submerged into one of its inner-circle in Southeast Asia that sense of foreignness will remain.

However, it does not mean New Delhi has not tried to use its soft power capacity in exercising its foreign policy. It was only 2018 when Narendra Modi established the ASEAN-India Research Training Fellowship that is intended to reach out to Southeast Asia through research and development in technology and science in India’s top technological Institutions. Perception management is pertinent in this matter to diminish the distance and gradually gaining a more meritorious spot in the heart of the ASEAN countries.

In this Economy?

The report also covered how China remained a strong economic influence in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, Beijing continuously disregards New Delhi’s attempts of closing in the region. Firstly through dismissing Indo-Pacific completely in various forums and secondly by proclaiming this diplomatic reach as a futile effort. The effort might not be futile as it was framed by China, but at the same time not as fruitful. When India’s foreign policy paradigm shifted from looking to acting, this also implied a degree of engagement, something that is translated rather too simplistic by New Delhi. New Delhi branded itself as a benign and responsible rising power in comparison to the expansive and revisionist Beijing, but these claims did not affect China’s economy and present among ASEAN countries.

Interestingly, just last year India withdrew itself from Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on its brink of agreement. Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs pointed out how India’s needs were not addressed thus questioning the intention to take part in the agreement. The need to deepen economic engagement is blocked by India’s defensive, protectionist approach to international trade. Moreover, in the case of working with ASEAN, this became apparent at the last ASEAN-India Economic ministers meeting in August 2020. Both parties failed to issue a joint media statement. To trace the root of failure, the parties are in disagreements over the scope of the scheduled ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) review. On one side, India initiated the importance of the review to focus on AITIGA implementation and most importantly to address its trade deficit with ASEAN. However, ASEAN wanted the review to extend trade liberalization and facilitation.


So far, the Act East policy in Southeast Asia has been hot and cold. This implied lack of commitment to push further or even to achieve the so-called engagement. India claimed growing strategic partnership through more military-related agreements such as in Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are progressing enough. It might progress but not to the imagined significance New Delhi portrayed itself to be. For these agreements are happening away from the community, it became another decent deal signed merely in the transactional framework away from engagement. In addition to that backing off from RCEP is quite the relationship stain just as much as the inability to find common grounds on free trade and trade facilitation with ASEAN. In this case, domestic affairs are not to blame, in fact, a chance to seize the momentum and commit with the action plan as foreign and domestic supposed to work altogether.


Habibah Hasnah Hermanadi, MA.

Habibah is a political researcher with a master’s degree from the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi. Feel free to access her research and publications here.

How Does RED II Discriminate Indonesian and Malaysian Palm Oil Industry?

By Intan Tawaddada Ilaiha (Photo: World Resource Institute Indonesia)

The banning of Palm oil usage in the European Union ruins the economy of smallholder farmers in Indonesia and Malaysia. It remains the issue of poverty for developing countries to suffer.

In December 2018, the European Union revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED) called RED II, which bans the use of palm oil (WTO, 2018) and closes the opportunity for Indonesia and Malaysia to export their palm oil production. They maintain to use another biofuel such as sunflower oil that they start to produce themselves. The reason to ban the use of palm oil is that the European Union claims that the production of palm oil causes a lot of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. Leaving the palm oil market in Indonesia and Malaysia makes the smallholder farmers suffer from being collapsed as Indonesia and Malaysia are the biggest exporters for European Countries. Almost 85 percent of palm oil in European Countries is from Indonesia and Malaysia. Moreover, palm oil is versatile if we compare it to other oil for cosmetics, pharmaceutical, food, fuel, etc.

The main reason to ban is because of bad practices of palm oil plantation. The fact is that palm oil-producing countries have done so much to solve this issue such as the commitment of reforestation, conservation, research, and also the stricter certification for sustainable palm oil industry such as ISPO (Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil) Certification, MSPO (Malaysia Sustainable Palm Oil) Certification, and RSPO (Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil). It is called discrimination because in RED II they do not give a clear explanation about how a sustainable plantation should be. There is no such amount of how large the plantation is. So, no matter how hard Indonesia and Malaysia have tried to prove that they have improved their palm oil production sustainability, it will be no use since the European Union will claim the whole production of palm oil as a non-sustainable production that will damage our environment.

The problems remain with the ban and the significant difference of palm oil tariffs in Europe. The Netherlands maintains its partnership with Indonesia and Malaysia to buy palm oil. The Netherlands is one of the countries in the European Union territory that does not want to bind its regulation with the RED II result. The Netherlands itself is also a producing country of palm oil, but they can sell their palm oil at way higher prices in the European Union Countries. The difference is around USD 150 per-metric ton (CPOPC, 2020), it remains unfair since we can say that the Netherlands palm oil is mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia. The tariffs sanctions exist because the European Union claims Indonesia and Malaysia have bad practices of palm oil plantation. Under the same logic, it means the Netherlands also distributes the palm oil that has the chain of bad practices palm oil plantation, but why does the Netherlands not have the same tariffs sanctions? So, the European Union proclaimed aim to stop the deforestation of Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests by giving them tariffs sanctions is questionable.

From 9 December 2019 to 2 November 2020, Indonesia has requested consultation in WTO to talk about the palm oil dispute (WTO, 2020). Other countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Norway, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, and the United States reserved their third-party rights in that consultation (ibid). Nevertheless, the palm oil settlement dispute remains unclear for Indonesia, Malaysia, and the European Union. This means that the future of smallholder farmers in Indonesia and Malaysia remains unclear as well.

This whole regulation from the European Union will give no benefit at all to Indonesia and Malaysia. Nevertheless, I can assure you that banning palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia will give no benefit the decreasing global warming and climate change. The whole world will rely on Indonesia and Malaysia for its reforestation to the lungs of the world. At the same time, they also give no benefit at all to Indonesia and Malaysia with a ban from the European Union. How can the world expect Indonesia and Malaysia somehow to change its palm oil plantation into a complete forest by giving them sanctions? The people in Indonesia and Malaysia especially smallholder farmers of palm oil are suffering from this regulation while the world forces them to change their lifestyle and jobs drastically. Furthermore, there is no such guarantee if the European Union leaves the Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil market and they will change its plantation into the forest due to the economy of hundreds of smallholder farmers. The worst case scenario will find another market apart from the European Union Countries market to survive and we cannot guarantee this new market will demand sustainability. We are sure if Indonesia and Malaysia still try their best for a sustainable palm oil industry even though the new market will not demand sustainability. But it is really unfair because Indonesia and Malaysia do not get the reward they deserve for trying their best to sustain the sustainable palm oil industry amid economic setback due to the coronavirus outbreak.

At the end of the day, saving the environment has to be everyone’s commitment on this whole planet due to our existence, and we all take advantage of it. It is a selfish act to leave this issue to Indonesia and Malaysia just because the forests are located there while we all take advantage of it no matter what country we live. Then, we close our eyes when their smallholder farmers are suffering from the impact of discrimination regulation. We cannot leave the palm oil market, but we can demand to reform the palm oil market to be a better one.

Intan Tawaddada Ilaiha is a Final Year Student of Communication Science from the Social and Political Faculty in Universitas Sebelas Maret. She concerns about low politics, international relations, and humanitarian issues.

Theorizing a College of Southeast Asia

By Truston Yu (Photo: Vindur, Polish Wikipedia)

For seven decades, the College of Europe has produced distinguished alumni members who had gone on to take up important posts in the European Union (EU) and its member states. With an increasing demand for ASEAN young talents well-versed in the region, could there be a “College of Southeast Asia” in the future? With Europe as an example, this article theorizes the creation of a postgraduate institution of similar nature in the Southeast Asian context.

The College of Europe was established in 1949 as one of the results of the 1948 Congress of Europe in The Hague. It was supported by significant figures from postwar Europe, such as Spanish diplomat Salvador de Madariaga and British prime minister Winston Churchill. The first campus is in Bruges, Belgium, where students study law, politics, or economics in an EU context. A second campus was established in Natolin (Warsaw) after the fall of the Berlin Wall, offering interdisciplinary programs. Both campuses offer year-long master degrees.

Under what is called the “College Formula”, students spend ten months living and studying together in an intensive yet nurturing environment. There are around 340 students in Bruges and 130 in Natolin, making for a tight-knit community. Despite the short duration of the program, there is a solid alumni network across cohorts and countries. For non-European audiences, one of the most well-known alumnus would be Former British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

As of today, the College’s existence may seem perfectly logical and reasonable; yet it is worth noting that at the time of its inception, conflict was still perceived to be the norm in the European continent. Memories of a war-torn Europe were still very fresh, and the creation of such a College was at the time a radical initiative. It has been several decades since the last time a war was fought between countries in Southeast Asia, the execution of such a project would be far less controversial here. In fact, the creation of this College would go in line with ongoing efforts of the ASEAN Community and the Narrative of ASEAN Identity.

In some sense, the College of Europe could be seen as an academy for civil servants serving in the European domain. Henri Brugmans, a former Rector of the College of Europe in Bruges, believed that one of the purposes of their purposes was to “train an elite of young executives for Europe”. Indeed, many graduates have gone on to take up executive roles in organs under the EU framework, or enter the foreign service of their home countries with a focus on EU affairs. However, this is not absolute, and there are still others who chose different paths, such as think tanks and consultancies.

With ASEAN integration taking place at an exponential rate, there would certainly be greater demand for staff members in ASEAN affairs: whether it is in the ASEAN Secretariat and associated entities, the respective directorates under the foreign ministries of ASEAN member states, or even non-governmental organizations and private corporations.

Southeast Asia is, without doubt, the most diverse region on earth in many ways: countries differ in language, religion, political systems, and many other categories. Such diversity requires a nuanced understanding of the region, especially for those whose work is related to specific countries or the ASEAN as a whole. When external parties like Korea and Taiwan have been stepping up their engagement and research on Southeast Asia, this region also needs to train more local professionals with regional expertise – it could only make sense that Southeast Asians ourselves must get to know our own region better than foreign observers. Southeast Asian governments, particularly, could benefit from equipping their brightest young professionals with a regional vision.

Due to both internal and external factors, there is a clear urgency for such a College. This College would also equip classes of regional-minded students with the expertise and connections to take over the reins of an increasingly interconnected ASEAN; Naturally, graduates of the College would act as de facto regional ambassadors to spread the word of Southeast Asia to the domestic populace as well as foreign audiences. For non-Southeast Asian students, the College is an entry-point for them to get to know this region from within.

During Singapore’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2018, the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore began an initiative known as the ASEAN Law Academy. The Academy is a “cross-disciplinary master’s level intensive course aimed at those working in the fields of politics and governance, economics and law.” It appears to be the closest resemblance to something like a College of Europe, but at a shorter and smaller scale geared towards established professionals.

A College of Southeast Asia could be set up from scratch or based on existing institutions. The S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), for example, has long been seen as an institution for aspiring diplomats and strategists of the region. The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, also based in Singapore, is renowned as the world’s leading institution for Southeast Asian Studies. At any rate, the expertise is already well-established, there needs to be an institution with institutionalized degree programs utilizing the existing resources.

Perhaps most importantly, what would a College of Southeast Asia experience look like for its students? I had the honor of interviewing Emma Vermunicht, recent alumna, and former Student President of the Natolin campus. In Emma’s opinion, the best part of the College of Europe lies not in the coursework per se but the whole community in general. “For the academics, I could have gone to any other institution,” It was the community-building experience that is irreplaceable: “We had just 138 students in our cohort, coming from all different countries.” In many ways, this community reflects what real life is like in the EU.”

A College of Southeast Asia must be able to offer its students something beyond academic skills and knowledge. After all, there are already prominent institutions on Southeast Asian Studies such as Kyoto University and the University of Sydney, and their longstanding tradition in the field would attract students with academic interest. Like the College of Europe, the Southeast Asian counterpart must endeavor to create a conducive community on campus for students, which extends into an alumni network as they graduate. It could also serve as a feeder for internships and officer positions in organs such as the ASEAN Secretariat, the ASEAN Foundation, and other affiliated entities such as the Master of Arts in Transatlantic Affairs (MATA) between the College of Europe and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the United States, the College of Southeast Asia may feature partnerships that allow for comparative studies.

With imaginations based on the College of Europe, this article has painted a picture of a hypothetical College of Southeast Asia. Irrespective of the precise form this may take place, the creation of a postgraduate institution on Southeast Asian affairs would be tremendously helpful towards nurturing a new class of young professionals to lead the region.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. Their research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and the teaching of this discipline. They could be reached at their e-mail:

A Switzerland Model for Timor-Leste? Prospects of Differentiated Integration in ASEAN

By Truston Yu (Photo: VOA)

Nearly two decades have passed since Timor-Leste became Southeast Asia’s youngest country, their quest for membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) remains in limbo. Could a model like Switzerland in the European Union (EU) be a feasible solution for Timor-Leste’s relationship with the ASEAN? This article examines the idea first proposed by veteran diplomat Barry Desker, looking into case examples in Europe and prospecting its application in Southeast Asia. The concept of “differentiated integration”, in particular, is of interest within this discussion.

It has been over four decades since Timor-Leste first expressed its intent in joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Much has happened in the years between: East Timor was annexed by Indonesia until it regained its independence 27 years later following a period of transitional UN administration; ASEAN membership doubled; the ASEAN Charter was drafted in 2007, and the ASEAN Community was launched in 2015. However, little progress has been made regarding Dili’s accession to the Southeast Asian bloc.

The ASEAN Charter’s Article 6 Admission of New Members outlines the criteria for an aspiring country to be admitted into the ASEAN. It is non-debatable that Timor-Leste has already fulfilled the first three; the final one that remains is criterion (d) Ability and willingness to carry out obligations of Membership.

Timor-Leste is Southeast Asia’s smallest economy, with a GDP of only one-tenth of Cambodia, the smallest economy in ASEAN. However, all members must contribute an equal amount to the ASEAN budget, and this would certainly be a bigger burden to this young country than it is to other neighbors in Southeast Asia. As former ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong stated, ASEAN member states attend over a thousand meetings of various nature each year. Attendance itself is already a rather demanding task, not to mention that member states must share the workload of hosting ASEAN Summits and other events.

Ambassador Barry Desker, senior Singaporean diplomat and the Founding Dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), proposed the idea of a “Switzerland model” for Timor-Leste in ASEAN. I had the opportunity of speaking with him personally at an academic conference in Singapore, July 2019. Desker envisioned a solution in which Timor-Leste could participate in ASEAN frameworks without having to comply with the rather high expectations membership entails.

Differentiated integration describes the phenomenon in which member states have varying levels of commitment and participation in different aspects of the organization. The official definition set out in the European Commission’s GLOSSARY: The reform of the European Union in 150 definitions is as follows:

Differentiated integration means a process of integration in which the Member States opt to move forward at different speeds and/or towards different objectives, in contrast to the notion of a monolithic bloc of States pursuing identical objectives at a single speed.

This definition of differentiated integration, however, does not include non-member states. They are addressed in Article 8 of the Treaty of the European Union:

The Union shall develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness, founded on the values of the Union and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation.

There are differential treatments and expectations on member states and other countries with close relations. It is the state of “not completely within, not completely without” which Desker envisions would be the way forward for Timor-Leste’s inclusion into ASEAN.

There are variations of this pertaining to the European Union: The most well-known cases would be members of the European Free Trade Association like Switzerland and Norway; there are also microstates like Andorra and Monaco; finally, we have Central European Free Trade Agreement member states such as Romania which eventually left CEFTA and joined the EU, as well Serbia which is considered to be first in line as the next member to join EU.

ASEAN differs from the EU in the sense that it emphasizes the equality between member states. Unanimity is central to the ASEAN Way – everyone is equal in voting (and vetoing) rights. While the EU is accustomed to “tailor-made plans” designed to meet the needs and capacities of different countries, this would be a major hurdle for ASEAN.

Though Desker coined the idea of a “Switzerland model” as it is the most well-known example of a non-member state being highly integrated into the EU, Dili’s circumstances are more homologous to the CEFTA members. As the Balkan countries, Timor-Leste is the one lagging behind the regional average, and preparatory efforts for accession have focused on capacity building. Thus, the Timor-Leste model would actually be closer to a “Serbia model”.

In fact, elements of differentiated integration could already be seen in Southeast Asia, with Timor-Leste’s inclusion in the ASEAN Annual Meeting of Foreign Ministers (AMM) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). ASEAN may further include Timor-Leste in more multilateral meetings regarding various aspects of cooperation.

In the face of Timor-Leste’s long quest for ASEAN membership, there are three courses of action: immediate membership, indefinite rejection, and differentiated integration. Not only is a differentiated integration model ideal for Timor-Leste’s gradual inclusion into ASEAN, but the current mode of Timor-Leste’s involvement with the regional bloc is also already demonstrating elements of differentiated integration. Admittedly, the length of this article does not allow for a deeper examination of the ASEAN and EU’s complexity. There remain many more technicalities to be discussed under this topic, such as whether the model would be an intermediary or permanent, or which of the three ASEAN Community pillars Dili will be given access to first. Nevertheless, differentiated integration, in a broad sense, presents a new framework for understanding the possibilities for Timor-Leste in ASEAN, breaking the binary and the deadlock in the status quo.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. Their research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN.

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