Southeast Asian Group at a Crossroads as It Turns 50

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a multinational group that represents 10 countries, celebrates its fifth decade as an economic force, but one whose member countries continue to struggle with human rights issues.

Five decades ago, in the midst of the Vietnam War, a group of five countries banded together as members of a new organization called the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The multinational group’s formation—launched with founding members Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand—was driven by two forces: concerns about the rising influence of communism and a desire to improve the economic picture in Southeast Asia.

And 50 years later, it’s still going strong, as reflected by a World Economic Forum (WEF) event that took place this week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

These days, ASEAN has 10 member nations—with the later additions of Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam—that represent more than 622 million people, many of them under the age of 30. The regional body is a fascinating study from a sociological standpoint because of both the economic power of the region and the quite different profiles of the countries. Some countries, like Singapore, are highly stable financially but small; others, like Indonesia, have a low GDP per capita but a massive population. And while some of the region’s nations are landlocked, others are made up of an array of islands.

Together, though, they represent a significant economic force. If the nations’ economies were combined, they’d represent $2.4 trillion in gross domestic product—more economic output than nearby India and Australia, though a small fraction of China’s GDP. That said, WEF makes the point that ASEAN isn’t vying for a European Union-style approach.

“Although comparisons with the EU are tempting, ASEAN is very different, and does not aspire to be the Asian EU,” wrote Alex Gray. “It does not get involved in the internal affairs of its members; its focus is on promoting rapid and sustained economic growth and modernization.”

Human Rights Challenges

But even with the region’s economic success, civil liberties remain a concern—and those issues received notice during the WEF event. Wai Wai Nu, a onetime political prisoner in Myanmar and the head of the Women Peace Network, noted that economic success and freedom go hand in hand.

“Development can only be sustained when people are secure,” she said, according to CNBC. “My dream is for ASEAN is to become an inclusive society where all people in the region can enjoy freedom with respect to their human rights.”

Amnesty International Senior Director of Global Operations Minar Pimple made a similar point, especially about activism within the region, a pain point in many ASEAN countries.

“Youth activists should not be perceived as part of the problem but should be part of the solution,” Pimple wrote in a blog post this week. “ASEAN governments must stop restricting or silencing young activists and instead work with them to enhance an inclusive policy-making process and respond to human rights issues.”


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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