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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 5, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 44

An Indochinese Caucus
After a conclave in Vientiane, fears of a split
By ROGER MITTON Bangkok

A historical footnote may record that the last year of this century saw the union of all 10 nations of Southeast Asia - and their splintering. In the distant past, ASEAN members were often embroiled in hostilities, a tendency tempered since they came together under one house. And to keep old antagonisms at bay, the region's leaders have preferred to meet bilaterally or in full group summits. Conclaves of three or four nations would spook the others, who fear power plays. So when the leaders of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos met on Oct. 20 in Vientiane for their first "unofficial" Indochinese summit, they sparked concern across Southeast Asia. Would ASEAN start splitting into subgroups?

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The Indochinese trio, along with Myanmar, had been inducted into the association over the past five years. There was talk of a possible schism between the older, more economically advanced states and the newer, less developed ones. The Indochinese nations were also more politically repressive than the founding members. "There are diversities - old and new ASEAN, rich and poor, democratic and undemocratic, Buddhist, Muslim and Catholic," says Suchit Bunbongkarn of Thailand's Chulalongkorn University. Such differences are a potential source of instability within the grouping

Does the Vientiane conclave threaten ASEAN? Probably not - just yet. "Crucial is whether the discussions were inimical to ASEAN's interests," says Bunn Nagara, coordinating chairman of Geopolicy Research, a Malaysian think-tank. "If they were not, there is not much of a problem." According to official accounts, the three prime ministers - Vietnam's Phan Van Khai, Cambodia's Hun Sen and Laos's Sisavath Keobounphanh - focused on "the importance of further increasing various areas of cooperation and strengthening the friendship" among their nations. Also discussed were a "development triangle" and better transportation links.

Unmentioned publicly, however, were talks among the three PMs about their opposition to outside intervention in East Timor. That puts them at odds with some ASEAN members, notably Thailand, which has committed 1,500 troops to the former Indonesian province. With East Timor on the agenda for the full ASEAN summit in Manila later this month, there is concern that the trio might have thrashed out a common front in Vientiane.

"The 'Indochina conclave' is evidence that a caucus of politically closed states is emerging in ASEAN," says Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. "They share an interest in suppressing any initiatives that would degrade the grouping's longstanding principle of non-interference in one another's affairs." Since Thailand, under Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan, has been advocating such initiatives, an acrimonious showdown may lie ahead. Already, the notion of forming a rival subgroup has been mooted in politically more liberal states. Says Bangkok-based Somchai Homlaor, secretary-general of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development: "The change in Indonesia may enable it to join hands with Thailand and the Philippines to lead ASEAN toward more open and democratic societies."

If so, another subgroup comprising Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei may find itself caught in the middle. That could severely test ASEAN's unity - and affect its clout on the world stage. "The group's prestige will be tarnished and its ability to influence policy-making in the U.S. and Europe will be degraded," says Thayer. The academic adds that signs of ASEAN disarray and political instability would dent confidence among foreign investors. Others disagree with that gloomy prognosis. "I don't think [the Indochinese] would want to do anything to make their subgroup official," says Suchit. "They just want to discuss their common concerns. It's too early to conclude that a subgroup is developing in ASEAN."

Those who fear such a scenario are additionally disturbed by the fact that the fledgling caucus is led by Vietnam, ASEAN's new, autocratic powerhouse. Laos is closely aligned with Hanoi, as is Hun Sen. Explains Lao Mong Hay, director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh: "Cambodian rulers, who used to be communists and allies of Vietnam, do not feel comfortable with the old ASEAN members. Theirs is very much a Cold-War foreign policy of close friendship with the socialist camp."

The Vietnamese also have hardlining Myanmar on their side. So they wield a big stick - as was evident last December when they tried to steamroller Cambodia's fast-track admission against the wishes of founder members. Yet, Bunn Nagara cautions, "Laos and Cambodia would not want to be dominated by any country, whether it's Vietnam or Thailand. The main reason they joined ASEAN was because membership gave them equal rights - without being dependent on any big neighbor." That's the optimistic view, which prevails for now. But as Lao Mong Hay notes: "The memorial to the militant solidarity of the Indochinese countries still stands tall in a Phnom Penh park." In time, the latest Vientiane conclave may also be seen as a memorial. The question is whether it would commemorate ASEAN's progress or its partition.

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