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US-Asean Summit - human rights, agenda-setting and hegemony

MP SPEAKS In a conversation last year with author Marilynn Robinson, US President Barack Obama said he learns all things important from books.

In an article published in the Nov 19 issue of the New York Review of Books , he said, “It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.”

Things should therefore be way easier for Obama as he would be meeting like-minded leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) at the Sunnylands summit, who, just like him, are facing a backlash at home.

So let’s just hope that Obama can lobby for grains of truth with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak who is still struggling to convince the people that the millions of dollars in his personal bank accounts are donations from the Saudi royal family.

Or with other dictators, such as the Brunei sultan, who blatantly disregarded freedom of religion by banning Christmas celebrations last year. And leaders who have no regard whatsoever for democracy, like Thailand’s supremo, who is yet to announce an election date.

Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are no better. We could try and heave a sigh of relief because Myanmar’s Thein Sein has declined the invitation. His government’s efforts to resettle Muslim minorities, who cannot meet stringent standards for naturalised citizenship, have spurred another exodus of the Rohingya. The political mood in Myanmar has also soured as transition talks hit a snag.

Interestingly, all these heads of states would smile, pose for photographs and indulge in backslapping, while silently fuming over the unresolved territorial disputes with China.

And Obama will attend the meetings with his own agenda of pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) that is seeing increasing opposition in Congress and globally, and keeping China’s influence in the region at bay after failure to forge warmer ties with Beijing at the same summit, back in 2013.

I do not expect Obama to reverse his position on the TPPA as the deal represents a major foreign policy initiative for his administration, which sees its success as pivotal to ensuring that America ‘writes the rules’ for the future of global trade.

The sad thing here is that Obama could actually try to set the tone for the two-day summit, by lobbying Asean leaders to be committed to human rights and democratic principles as part of trade rules that are written.

Obama could also reprimand Najib the second time around for the massive scandal involving huge amounts of taxpayers’ money and the repressive laws he has been using to silence his critics and legitimate dissent.

But none of this would happen because Obama’s main aim is to push through the TPPA and keep a watchful eye on China.

The Malaysian government has pursued the agreement with vigour, signing on the dotted line without understanding the deal’s full implications.

The TPPA would have serious negative implications for Malaysians. They would see the cost of life-saving medicines skyrocket as a result of patent protections that safeguard the interests of large pharmaceutical companies at the expense of average Malaysian citizens. The deal would also undermine Malaysian democracy - already under threat - by allowing foreign companies to sue the government in closed court if a domestic law or policy impacts their profit margins.

These are not only concerns for Malaysia, but for all lower and middle-income countries included in the trade deal. And yet, other Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines and Thailand, are already clamouring to get in on the action.

Symptom of a larger problem

The rush to sign onto the TPPA is a symptom of a larger problem throughout Southeast Asia, where in efforts to promote trade, investment, and GDP growth, Asean governments have continued to allow human rights and the dignity of all citizens to take a backseat.

Najib recently said the Malays should be grateful, as his government has managed to negotiate on bumiputera provisions. It’s clearly his way of scoring brownie points with Malaysians who are livid with the financial mishandling of the country’s sovereign fund, 1MDB, increasing costs of living, weakening ringgit and loss of investor confidence in the country, sending Malaysia on a slippery slope to doom.

Negotiation skills of Malaysian representatives played no role here, as the US was desperate to secure a position in Southeast Asia to monitor China.

As the TPPA negotiations were under way, Asean member states were setting the stage for an ambitious regional integration effort: the Asean Community. Officially launched on Jan 1 this year, the Asean Community marks an effort to fuse the region into a common economic market, lowering tariffs and allowing for the free flow of goods and services between countries.

Unfortunately, however, it appears that Asean governments have no plans to pair this economic integration effort with a commitment to shared values, including human rights and the rule of law. This is misguided and ultimately dangerous for the region and its partners, including the United States.

We live in one of the fastest-growing regions in the world. But just like in America, inequality is rising even more rapidly, and average citizens are getting left behind. Safeguards to prevent abuse by governments and corporations are falling away, leaving the people of Asean more vulnerable.

It is a pivotal moment for the future of Southeast Asia. We must decide what kind of regional community we want to be - one that stands for the interests of the privileged few or one that fights for the rights and dignity of all citizens.

But at Sunnylands, Obama and his counterparts would have a different agenda - one that’s self-serving and keeps them in power.


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