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Special Report II
Last Updated: 11/12/2008
ASEAN Vision: Peace or Conflict?
Kyi Kyi Seinn

Kyi Kyi Seinn discusses ASEAN Vision 2020, and looks beneath the rhetoric of peace and harmony to reveal the tensions of economic exploitation and international migration. She argues that the significant power imbalances between the original ASEAN 6 countries and the newer, less developed member states (Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines) have not been adequately addressed in the plans of economic cooperation.

Key words: regional integration, economic exploitation, migration, displacement, ASEAN Vision 2020, CLMV countries, AFTA, CEPT, ASC, AEC

One Vision, One Identity, One Community ASEAN Motto

My initial interest in studying the Association of Southeast Asian Nations[1] (ASEAN) integration derived from the fact of being a citizen of the ASEAN region myself. Lately, I have been facing the dilemma of whether I should really appreciate the postmodern peace concept of ASEAN integration in this region or not. Although on one hand, regional integration will bring a stronger economy and job opportunities in the region as a whole, the economic cooperation plan for the developing countries in the region, especially Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam (CLMV) is still vague and uncertain. CLMV countries’ economic, social, and political status are in the fragile stage where, economically, they have to depend largely on the ASEAN 5 countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines) and the ASEAN trade partners (US, EU, Japan, China, South Korea, etc), which makes their position in the region become vulnerable.

The glory of ASEAN integration was already two decades old when the decision was made to include the much less developed CLMV countries. The participation of the CLMV countries brings more economic security and contributions to the ASEAN 6, through the CLMV’s through cheap labour and natural resources. On the other hand, it also harms the image of ASEAN with poverty and a huge human development index gap, followed by economic instablity and displacement from the CLMV countries. As the exploitation goes on in the region (such as squeezing out the economy from the CLMVs and neglecting the instabilities in these countries in the name of non-interference,[2] and for not coming up with the consensus, but, yet demanding the CLMVs to change their policies and internal conflict situations), the gaps are more likely to grow larger.

My perception as a citizen of a CLMV country is that the creation of ASEAN Vision 2020 in the region, which is full of diversity in terms of politics, economics, social and historical conflicts among its member countries, is more likely to bring larger inequality and conflicts rather than integration and peace when the time arrives.

I focus this article only on analyzing the ASEAN Vision 2020 and the challenges of its components; ASEAN Security Community (ASC), ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC), and how they affect the CLMV countries.

ASEAN Vision 2020

The idea of establishing the ASEAN Community derived from the creation of ASEAN Vision 2020, which was adopted by the Hanoi Plan of Action on the 30th anniversary of ASEAN on 1997. ASEAN member countries agreed on a shared vision of ASEAN, involving outward looking economic and social policies, living in peace, stability and prosperity, building partnerships in dynamic development, and fostering a community of caring societies.

In order to enforce ASEAN vision 2020, the leaders of ASEAN signed the implementation of three pillars in Bali Concord II, 2003 covering the areas of ASEAN Security Community (ASC), ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC). The creation of each community, however, impacts member countries differently, instead of creating real integration.  

ASEAN Security Community (ASC)

The ASEAN Security Community (ASC) aims to ensure that countries in the region live with the region and world in a just, democratic, and harmonious environment. It is the creation of the “we feeling”[3] where every country shares the same feeling. The areas of implementation under ASC includes political development, shaping and sharing of norms, conflict prevention, conflict resolution, post-conflict peace building, implementing mechanisms and the areas of activities.

However, these policies seem not to be applicable in the real situation where the member countries act on their own self-interests differing from collaboration. The ongoing cases of Cambodia-Thailand border disputes, Thai-Myanmar refugee issues, and the political self-interests among the ASEAN countries, reflect the negative feelings that the member countries continue to have towards each other. That “we feeling”[4] of ASEAN Security Community may be merely a superficial agreement – the actions of its member countries are certainly telling different stories.

ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)

The vision of the ASEAN Economic Community is to create “a single market”, and the concept has become synonymous with the idea of moving forward in a unified manner. The target timeframe of creating the ASEAN Economic Community has been shortened from 2020 to 2015 for the reason that most of the ASEAN countries are almost ready for the change. There are three approaches to achieving AEC, all of which involve strengthening existing agreements: the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services (AFAS), and the ASEAN Investment Area (AIA). 

The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) is the most important tool in the framework for the ASEAN economic cooperation. AFTA has developed a mechanism called the Common Effective Preferential Tariff (CEPT) scheme, where the tariff rates are to be reduced from five percent to zero percent gradually by 2015. By creating this free trade area, the ASEAN countries intend to increase their combined international competitiveness and integration with the world, thereby bringing more competitiveness to its member countries.

The ASEAN Framework agreement on Services is designed to promote the service industry by encouraging nations within the ASEAN investment Area (AIA) to welcome more foreign direct investments, including special economic zones and the free flow of capital investments in the region. This leads the community to the place where free-flow of production-based goods, services, and investments are very competitive in the regional market. The member countries which cannot compete in this market will be left out, while the member countries which are competent in this market will gain more market shares and the economic growth.

Therefore, for the CLMV countries to catch up with the rest ASEAN countries is still not possible since the technology, investment, and skilled laborers needed to compete with ASEAN 6 are still lacking. CLMV countries are more likely to get the role of filling in the blanks for the benefit of other ASEAN countries. Even Brunei Darussalam, a small rich country with a population of less than one million, will miss out on the benefits of integration, as it does not have as much foreign direct investment as the rest ASEAN member countries. If we compare the ASEAN 5’s foreign direct investment (FDI) intra-ASEAN net inflow, throughout the year 2004 to 2006, ASEAN 5’s net inflow has increased for 135% from 2492.2 US million $ to 5856.6 US million $ where that of BCLMV[5] countries’ increased only for 23% which was from 311.5 US million $ to 385.5 US million $ (ASEAN,2007).

The combined GDP of ASEAN is 1100 Billion US$ in 2004.[6] However, there is a huge gap from one ASEAN country to another in terms of GDP per capita. While the per capita GDP of countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are struggling under 1000 US$, countries like Brunei Darussalam and Singapore are over 30000 US$, which is over 300 times more. These gaps are a big challenge in reality to build integration together with one single vision.

It is obvious to see that ASEAN integration is taking the form of a flying geese pattern[7], where economically stronger countries such as Singapore and Malaysia exploit relatively poorer countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, which in turn leads to a third generation of economic exploitation from the least developed countries in the region, such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Therefore, it is very crucial for the CLMV countries, which are becoming economically dependent on the rest ASEAN 6, to have a positive political relationship with these countries in the region.       

ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC)

The common goals for creating a socio-cultural community include: building a community of caring societies, managing the social impact of economic integration, enhancing environmental sustainability, and strengthening the foundation of regional social cohesion. Being a region with member countries as small as Brunei Darussalam and Singapore on one hand, and as large as Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Thailand on the other, the population and migration gaps among ASEAN nations is a critical issue.

When managing the social impact of economic integration, migration issues in the region play a very important role. ASEAN member countries have already begun to prevent future migration problems in their countries by enacting new migration policies and laws. Small countries such as Singapore and Brunei Darussalam are aware of the potential dangers of migrant inflow into their countries. Singapore, with a current population of 4.6 million people, already has an estimated 1.2 million migrant workers in its country, which is one fourth of the country’s population. Singapore’s migration policy now favors more skilled labour migrants and no longer unskilled labourers, since the country trying to follow a more capital and technology intensive economic strategy, rather than a labor intensive strategy. Thailand and Malaysia on the other hand, who receive more than 1.9 million, mainly unskilled foreign workers, are now facing illegal migration issues, human trafficking issues, and deportations – all of which have brought conflicts between the respective governments in the region. For this reason, the Malaysian government has initiated talks and negotiations with the governments of labour sending countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos on the issues of deportation and illegal migration. ASEAN labour migration policies and labour distribution systems have become a major challenge in the region, especially since so many parties benefit from migrant workers, and cheap labour they bring drives the economies of many countries in the region. The Thai government also signed memorandum of understandings (MOUs) with neighboring countries but many points stated in their agreements are not practical. For example, the MOU between Myanmar and Thai government states that: “A three-year break is required for a worker who has already completed the terms and conditions of employment to re-apply for employment.”[8] This restriction is not possible for the many labourers who wish to return to their jobs within the three-year timeframe, and could lead them to migrate illegally.

Of course, it is not particularly surprising that there would be disagreement among these countries, since all ten ASEAN member countries come to the table with very different interests based on their very different backgrounds and natures, including geography, sizes, population, economic strategy, history, poverty, and so on. Furthermore, the involvement of the great power strugglers – China and United States – as supporters of some of the ASEAN member countries, such as Myanmar, Philippines, and Thailand, can only bring more complicated political issues to the region, and may distract from the ASEAN goal of creating peace, harmony, and prosperity.

Adjustment and Conclusion

The creation of an integrated region such as ASEAN can be thought of as a postmodern attempt at building peace, where the leaders of all ASEAN member countries intend to block the potentially positive energy of conflict through economic (and to some degree, social) integration,  as outlined in the ASEAN Vision 2020. Postmodern peaces do not believe in one-dimensional way but as networked and systemic structures, or fields (Dietrich, 2006). However, ASEAN integration cannot be taken as a fully positive example, since there are significant power imbalances and ethno-political tensions which have not been properly addressed.

It is not possible to have a region without such tensions and conflicts, but it is necessary to create a continuous system of mediation and negotiation which can accommodate the concerns of all member countries. I, therefore, confirm my statement that, as it is currently stated, the creation of ASEAN Vision 2020 in the region, which is full of diversity in terms of politics, economics, social and historical conflicts among its member countries, is more likely to bring larger inequality and conflicts rather than integration and peace, when the time arrives.


ASEAN Knowledge Kit. (2005). Declaration of ASEAN Concord II (Bali Concord II), Jakarta; ASEAN Secretariat.

The ASEAN Charter (2008). Jakarta; ASEAN Secretariat

Dietrich, Wolfgang (2006). A call for Trans-Rational Peaces. IPS-6011 Conflict Analysis and Management Theory and Practice (2008), Reader. Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, International Peace Studies. University for Peace.

Gebrewold, Belachew. (n.d.) Deconstructing the Civilizing Process. IPS-6011 Conflict Analysis and Management Theory and Practice (2008), Reader. Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, International Peace Studies. University for Peace.

Huguet, W. Jerrold & Punpuing, Sureeporn. (2005). International Migration in Thailand, International Organization for Migration, Regional Office Bangkok.

International Labor Organization. (2007). Labor and Social Trends in ASEAN 2007: Integration, Challenges and Opportunities. ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Pearce, Jenny (2004). Collective action or public participation? Complementary or contradictory democratisation strategies in Latin America? Blackwell Publishing. Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol. 23, No. 4, pp. 483-504.

Seinn, Kyi Kyi. (2008). A Goal or A Blow?: ASEAN labor Migration’s Challenge to the ASEAN Economic Community(AEC) 2015.  

Wongboonsin, Patcharawalai. (2003). Migration Patterns and Policies in the Asian and Pacific Region; United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), Asian Population, Studies Series No. 160. Chapter 3: Comparative Migration Policies in the ESCAP Region, pp. 67-95.

[2] The letter sent by both prime ministers reads “…We are aware of similar efforts to respond to the genocide and crimes against humanity in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and ask that similar assistance [to] be given to Cambodia. Cambodia does not have the resources or expertise to conduct this very important procedure…We believe that crimes of this magnitude are of concerns to all persons in the world, as they greatly diminish respect for the most basic human rights, the right to life. We hope that the United Nations and the international community can assist the Cambodian people in establishing the truth about this period and bringing those responsible to justice. Only in this way can this tragedy be brought to a full and final conclusion…” (Klein, 2006, p.555).

[3] See the report of the group of experts for Cambodia established pursuant to General Assembly resolution 52/135 downloaded from  

[4] Gultang (1996) defined peace as the absence of both direct or physical violence (negative peace) and indirect or structural violence (positive peace).

[5] Gultang (2001) proposes twelve approaches to reconciliation: The exculpatory nature-structure-culture approach, the reparation/restitution approach, the apology/forgiveness approach, the theological/penitence approach, the juridical/punishment approach, the codependent origination/karma approach, the historical/truth commission approach, the theatrical/reliving approach, the joint sorrow/healing approach, the joint reconstruction approach, the joint conflict resolution approach, and the ho’o ponopono approach.

[6] Tuomi (1983) asserted that the documents regarding humanitarian aids in Cambodia are not all available.

[7] See the law on the establishment of the extraordinary chambers in the courts of Cambodia at

[8] Morrison (2008) classified court’s jurisdiction into subject-matter jurisdiction, temporal jurisdiction, territorial jurisdiction, and personal jurisdiction.

Kyi Kyi Seinn is a Master's degree candidate at the University for Peace.