Between the State and the Nation: How Close or Distant is ASEAN to Southeast Asian Citizens?
Since the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967, the regional grouping has evolved and developed along its own trajectory and has been able to achieve quite a number of things. For starters, it has to be noted that the most outstanding achievement of ASEAN is that it has managed to avert war between the states of Southeast Asia for half a century. Thanks to the security and stability of the region as a whole, Southeast Asia was able to benefit immensely from foreign direct investment (FDI) from Japan, Korea, and other East Asian countries following the global recession of the 1980s, thereby creating the so-called Tiger economies of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand that continued to develop all the way to the global financial crisis of 1998.*7
*7 Burma/Myanmar became a member of ASEAN in 1997, after Laos and Vietnam. At the time it was given a ranking of 0.524 on the UNDP Human Development Index, making it the lowest in the region. In 2014 Burma/Myanmar finally joined the ASEAN Regional Infrastructure Fund, as the last member of ASEAN to do so.
But here we should understand the nature of ASEAN and recognize it for what it is and what it is not. When ASEAN was created in 1967 the entire region of Southeast Asia was in the grip of the oppositional conflict of the Cold War. The five founding states of ASEAN were concerned to ensure that their countries would not be dragged into that conflict, and thus it comes as no surprise that neutrality and the principle of non-intervention were, and remain, key foundational ideas of ASEAN then and today.
From the outset, ASEAN was a pragmatic and realist concord between the governments of Southeast Asia. As such, it has always operated on the basis of common consensus and cooperation between states, on a government-to-government level. ASEAN did not begin from the "bottom-up," as an organic outgrowth of a common regional sensibility among the communities of the region. As such, we cannot and should not entertain expectations of ASEAN as if it was a popular/populist initiative that came from the grassroots of Southeast Asian society. From the very beginning, it was understood that, as a multilateral regional grouping, ASEAN was a concern of the respective governments of the member states and that it would come within the ambit of the foreign policy of the states. But the challenge that many states in Southeast Asia face today is to build national narratives that can do two things at the same time: on the one hand, offer a broad template where the range of ethnic-cultural-linguistic-religious identities can somehow be incorporated into a national story that is fully representative; and on the other hand, locate their respective nation-states in the broader context of regional history as well. In many of the countries of the ASEAN region there remain many ethnic-religious-linguistic communities who struggle for full representation at the national level.
Between a Singular ASEAN and Several "Southeast Asias"
Here we need to understand that there is a very real distinction between ASEAN and Southeast Asia, and the difference is not simply a nominal one.
ASEAN, it has to be noted, was always an arrangement between states and the governments of the states of Southeast Asia. However the modern state is also a tool that can be used to do some things and perform some specific tasks, but wholly inadequate to do other things it was never intended to do. In the same way that one would not expect a car to fly or a plane to sail, the state is a tool that can be used to do a range of things related only to its original purpose. The prerogatives of the state—and policymakers and technocrats—are defined by the parameters of modern governmentality. States organize and manage economies, education policies, secure and protect borders, et cetera. But they do not and should not go in the direction of the management of micro-histories and micro-biographies of citizens and communities.
In my own work as a field-working, political analyst and historian of Southeast Asia, I have often worked on the ground level that exceeds the control of the modern states and governments of Southeast Asia. And it is on that real, organic, natural level that I have witnessed, at first hand, the realities of life among thousands of Southeast Asians, particularly those who live along the borders of ASEAN today. The salient observations that can be made from these encounters are:
- Firstly, the borders of Southeast Asia are indeed porous, and that despite all attempts to close and police these borders, cross-border movement in many parts of Southeast Asia is a casual, daily reality.
- Secondly, the people who inhabit these border zones often have more affinity with their political neighbors than they do with their fellow citizens in other parts of the country.
- Thirdly, border-zone communities often do not have nationalist leanings that are exclusive and/or hostile to the "other." Narrowly defined nationalist discourses have less meaning and currency among people who live in such border zones for the simple reason that the so-called foreign other is literally next door, standing in front of them, and happen to be the people they trade with, interact with, and are married to.
- Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, these experiences are rooted in ground-level, socio-economic realities of trade, settlement, migration, and marriages. And precisely because of this, they also have meaning for the people whose lives are shaped by those realities.
How Academic Research Misses the Mark
The gap that I see between the mode of thinking among policymakers and technocrats, on the one hand, and people who live on the ground level, on the other, is also reflected in academia and research work today. This is an unfortunate consequence of the silo mentality that is the result of the development of specific disciplines, and it reflects on the lack of contact and cooperation between the various disciplines in the academic environment.
The net result of this silo mentality is the kind of thematically-specific and narrow research that many of us do, which leaves us with blind-spots that cannot be accounted for in our research work and findings. For instance, political economists often work on the political economy of the respective ASEAN states, or ASEAN as a whole, but fail to take into account other forms of economic life and praxis that may at times involve interactions that are not necessarily monetary in nature, but may assume other forms of capital (such as cultural capital). In the same manner, security analysts may work on border issues and questions related to national security, while failing to recognize that many other forms of movement and cross-border interaction are taking place, which may shed light on ways through which conflict can be prevented or mediated at the local, people-to-people level. The list goes on, and it reminds us of the fact that Southeast Asia is indeed far more complex than we realize, and that there are, in fact, many "Southeast Asias."
When we look at the map of Southeast Asia today, and trace the many different networks of movement, contact, and exchange—both legal and illegal, regular and irregular—we can see that the poly-nuclear world that K. N. Chaudhuri wrote about is still a living reality in the Southeast Asian region. So why not understand these multiple realities instead of demonizing/policing them, and why not map out the various and heterogeneous mental maps of "Southeast Asias" that readily exist in this part of the world?
One possible way out of the impasse we face at the moment is to take seriously the findings of geography, history, and socio-anthropology that may give us a more comprehensive picture of the many different local life-worlds that exist in the Southeast Asian region at the moment—from the mental map of highland communities to the seascape of sea nomads like the Bajao Laut, Illanuns, and Suluk peoples. Only then can we compare the fixed political geography of states with the mobile and dynamic, fluid geographies of communities on the ground, which may also explain how and why official state-centric discourses may have less relevance for some in certain circumstances. Unless this is done, our official understanding of ASEAN will remain a state-centric one, which tells only one, official story, while forgetting and/or neglecting the myriad of life-world narratives that actually exist across the complex region that is Southeast Asia.