The ten flags in front of a village school out our way are faded and a bit sad. They were put up at the crest of enthusiasm for the ASEAN Economic Accords of 2000 that promised an “ASEAN Economic Community” (AEC) in 2015. The agreement was touted as the way to coalesce the economic power of the hundreds of millions of people in South East Asia to challenge the European Union, upon which the AEC was modeled.
Gradually every school, community center and government office building displayed flags of the 10 ASEAN nations along with the ASEAN “hourglass” flag in the center. [I’m playing with words here; the ASEAN flag symbol represents a sheaf of “padi” (the Malay word for rice, usually written in English as paddy and mistaken to mean a rice field), symbolizing, ASEAN websites tell us, “strength and unity”.] It looks to me like the good times are over and the sand has run out in the hourglass. For a while schools invited each other to contests built around ASEAN. Companies planned how they would prosper in the wide-open market place. Ponderous academic conferences listened to distinguished speakers before dispersing into small rooms to hear summaries of important sounding research papers. Imagination flourished.
At this point this essay is supposed to tell of reasons why the ASEAN Economic Community is a dream that has only seemed to have faded as have the flags in the school yard. Actually, it is only just now sinking in that December 31, 2015, the delayed start-up date for the AEC, will not make much difference in critical matters like moving manufactured products, standardizing money, or opening labor opportunities. The hotel manager in Chiang Mai waiting for January to replace his Thai staff with cheaper workers from the Philippines who have better English, may be disappointed. What I have sensed is that the AEC will arrive entirely without impact. I do not pretend to know what is going on in the minds of Thai military ministers in charge of government departments, but they seem distracted from ASEAN. I have heard that ASEAN is dead, based on results of a natural gas agreement or something like that. I don’t know. But I think the AEC is further away than the end of the year.
I am living at a more grassroots level than many others pontificating on ASEAN and the Thai military government. But I can read signs of fading interest. This is a top-down society, and that helps me understand that when no sand is coming down it is because no sand is coming into the top. The ASEAN symbol is a funnel, to my way of thinking, and not an hourglass that can be turned over. There’s no chance of the people sustaining enthusiasm for the AEC if the government has lost interest in it. People out here in our neck of the valley never understood what the AEC was, never had high hopes of great economic improvement from internationalization, and never were much interested in the AEC beyond the pretty flags. Now that the flags are no longer pretty, even that mild interest is pretty much gone.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.