Is ASEAN guilty of 'selective interference'?

Francis Wade

Nov 9, 2009 (DVB), With the ASEAN chief last week wading into the Thailand-Cambodia diplomatic spat, it would appear that the bloc's policy of non-interference has been swapped for 'selective interference'.

Relations between Thailand and Cambodia have plummeted in the past week, with both countries on Thursday recalling their respective ambassadors. At the centre of the dispute is the fugitive former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been given a new home within the administrative walls of Phnom Penh as economic advisor to the Cambodian government.

It is by all accounts a cheeky blow to Thai-Cambodian relations, which have steadily soured since border clashes over disputed territory broke out last year. The timing is also ugly, with US president Barrack Obama due to arrive in Singapore later this week for his first meeting with heads of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Desperate to clean up before the summit, the ASEAN secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan, on Saturday publicly urged regional foreign ministers to "assist [Thailand and Cambodia] to settle their bilateral dispute amicably and as soon as possible".

Observers familiar with the workings of ASEAN will have raised an eyebrow at the comment. The 10-member bloc, which was formed in the late 1960's, has come under heavy scrutiny for doing exactly the opposite: remaining silent in the face of internal unrest. Its policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member countries has led critics to label it 'toothless', an accusation which stems largely from its reluctance to intervene in Burma's domestic quagmire. Indeed the only time that Thailand, which holds the current ASEAN chair, has 'interfered' in Burma was in May when Pitsuwan feared the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi was "affecting ASEAN's image".

It didn't matter that the trial was just the apex of a wider situation that has plagued Burma for decades, and for which regional efforts to address have been alarmingly absent. Back in May, there was no request from Pitsuwan for regional leaders to pressure the junta; it was merely a repeat of the soft rhetorical condemnation that has acquired ASEAN the nickname of the 'talking shop' – big on words, small on action.

On the flipside, the Thai-Cambodia spat is something that could considerably unsettle the Thai government, which is still cleaning up from the nose dive its reputation took during and after Thaksin's reign. Pitsuwan, as a former Thai foreign minister and the man who headed ASEAN during the embarrassing cancelation of its Pattaya summit in April, will have the interests of the Thai government close to heart. Further public disquiet within the bloc will be most unwelcome during Obama's appearance.

It may also be this self-interest issue that provides for interference when it is deemed necessary, by Thailand. Burma, as the source of the vast majority of Thailand's energy, holds some leverage on Thai domestic affairs, and as long as this remains intact, so will ASEAN's non-interference policy to Burma. Cambodia on the other hand will be viewed by Bangkok as a growing nemesis that has raised a middle finger at the current Abhisit administration, which has said it would arrest Thaksin if he stepped on Thai soil.

But, whatever is going on between Thailand and Cambodia is a bilateral dispute, not a regional one. If that warrants action from ASEAN, then so did the influx of 5,000 Burmese refugees into Thailand in June; so must the killing last year on Thai soil of the Karen National Union leader by a junta-backed militia, who make frequent, sometimes deadly, cross-border incursions into northern Thailand. ASEAN risks a public airing of its hypocrisy if it fails to set a concrete standard for its regional policy, particularly this week when it is set to share the podium with Obama's new dawn of global diplomacy.

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