Is Asean a pipe dream

Is Asean a pipe dream

As we rang in the new year Tuesday night, there are a number of significant events that may well become game- changers in South-east Asia this year.

Thailand is on course for a divisive election that may not put to rest the tumult that has spilled onto the streets of Bangkok and beyond. And in Indonesia, campaigning for an election not due until the middle of the year has already effectively begun.

For Indonesia, this will be the first election after two terms under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Analysts in and out of the country are wondering whether Indonesia can make the transition to a working democracy.

Elsewhere across the region we see the signs of populist politics emerging. This includes Burman- Buddhist ethno-nationalism in Myanmar, Muslim majoritarian politics in Malaysia and Indonesia, and Christian populism in the Philippines.

Across ASEAN, the public at large seems concerned about the fate of their respective economies, and in particular how the economic pie will be divided. This may explain why issues such as illegal immigrants, foreign workers, foreign capital and other external issues have captured the imagination of so many.

Yet while ASEAN member states grow more inward-looking, external factors have become too big to ignore.

Control and influence in the South China Sea is slowly but surely being disputed by powers larger than any of those in ASEAN. And if the current impasse between China and Japan over disputed territory in the East China Sea is anything to go by, the same level of drama and tension could one day move closer to South-east Asia's own troubled waters. China and several ASEAN states have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Once again, South-east Asia is becoming the disputed checkerboard for a larger game that South-east Asians themselves are unable to control or determine.

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