Asean Caves In to the Bad Guys

Gone are the days when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was steered by Indonesia's Suharto, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, and Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad. Call them dictators or whatever you like, but to be sure, these leaders did lead Asean and made it a real entity in world affairs.

A case in point was the third Asean Summit in 1987 in Manila. A series of coup attempts threatened the government of former President Corazon Aquino as it was preparing to host the summit. Indonesia's former President Suharto took the lead and announced he would attend the event against security advice. He moved other Asean leaders to follow suit, and the summit took place.

In contrast, this year's Asean Summit, which was supposed to be held in Cebu, the Philippines second largest city, from 10-14 December, was postponed at the last minute because, according to the organizing committee, a great big rain storm was on the horizon.

"We can't say how strong or weak the typhoon will be," said Marciano Paynor, who heads the national committee that organized the summit. "The primary responsibility of the host is the safety of his guests.”

Fair enough, but was the weather going to be so bad that it could shut down an event as important as this? According to Karl Wilson of AFP, one of the many journalists that went to Cebu to cover the summit, the Philippine national weather bureau had recommended it go ahead as planned.

And the typhoon never came. Over the weekend, there were only rains and strong winds in the area.

The real reason behind the abrupt and panicky cancellation, it turned out, was a terrorist threat. Just a few days before the summit was to begin an intelligence report from Australia said that a terrorist attack in the Cebu area was in its "final stages.” Following the report, six countries including Australia, the US, the UK, and Japan, issued warnings to their citizens advising them not to travel to the province during the Asean summit.

Of course, such threats can be real. In recent years, two Muslim militant groups, the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf and the Indonesia-headquartered Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), have launched several deadly attacks in the Philippines. In Indonesia itself, the JI was responsible for numerous attacks, namely the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005; the Jakarta J.W. Marriott blast in 2003; and the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004.

But another reason behind the cancellation was the political situation in the Philippines. For one thing, the government still has to deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front [MILF], the largest Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines. Furthermore, the summit taking place at a time of heightened political tension in Manila over the government's plans to push through radical changes to the constitution.

"The threat of a terrorist attack was one part (of the reason) and the other part was the political situation in Manila," an anonymous source at the Philippine foreign ministry was quoted by Wilson as saying.

Still insisting that weather was the reason, the summit's organizing committee announced last weekend that the summit would be rescheduled for January 2007.

Meanwhile, the debacle has already caused considerable damages to the image of Asean as an organization. For one thing, it reflects poorly on the leadership of the Philippines as the host of the summit. Even if the typhoon was the real reason they shut it down, blaming it on the weather is just lame. Besides, if the weather in Cebu was a problem, why not move the summit to another city?

By comparison, Indonesia did better as the host of the last Asean summit. Despite threats from the JI, the Indonesian government hosted the last event last year in Bali, the resort island that has been attacked twice. Even US president, George W. Bush, whose foreign policy has been the main cause of terrorist attacks worldwide, attended.

The non-event this year also shows that current Asean leaders are not as strong as their predecessors. As young, bright, and polished as they are, the new generation apparently does not have the guts that Suharto and his colleagues did when the political situation in the Philippines was in turmoil ahead of that 1987 summit. They stared down the threat and pushed ahead.

Indeed, by backing down this year Asean has shown that it will cave in to terrorism. This is ironic because among one of Asean’s projects is tighter cooperation among its 10 members to fight terrorism. Indeed, just last month, Asean defense ministers gathered and agreed to a collective security pact which aims at increasing intelligence-sharing, training, and technical assistance.

But perhaps Asean is what its critics have long claimed it to be: a machine that cranks out long-winded meetings and high-sounding documents that result in no action or progress.

It is sad that Asean lost face over the Cebu non- summit. It is sadder, however, that the winners in this are the terrorists themselves.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist. His writing can be read at .