By Kavi Chongkittavorn*
BANGKOK, Dec 20 (IPS Asia-Pacific) – At the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh in November 2012, there were over 1,500 journalists covering the two-day event. But their focus was on two issues: the South China Sea dispute and the Rohingya crisis.
The first was the most important news because the ongoing dispute involving China and ASEAN has been dominating international media headlines for the past two years. The second one was around the recent conflict in Rakhine State, where the Burmese-Muslim communities were attacked and killed by local Buddhist communities.
It was not surprising, then, that most of the journalists were hunting for the draft of the ASEAN Chairman’s statement of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, as they were trying to figure out what the final wording on the South China Sea dispute would be. It was a long wait because the statement was released very late.
In a similar vein, to find out what the ASEAN leaders thought of the situation in Rakhine State, journalists had to read through all of the 35-page statement. The report on the issue was hidden in the paragraph No. 55 of the document under the ‘Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women, Children and other Vulnerable Groups’. Normally, such an issue would be under the heading of regional issues.
For those who are not familiar with the conduct of ASEAN summits, they probably thought the South China Sea conflict and the fate of the Rohingya were the only two issues on the summit’s agenda. Blame it on the reporters.
The first issue was widely reported by ASEAN and international media, while the second one was the main story for the two dozens of journalists from Myanmar. They were the latest group of curious journalists who followed their leaders in Phnom Penh. Their jobs were mainly to report what President Thein Sein said at a series of meetings.
Indeed, both international and Myanmar journalists have completely ignored the multi-facet nature of ASEAN cooperation. In each summit, hundreds of projects are put under review by the ASEAN leaders. It was a far cry from the past when ASEAN was dominated by one single issue—the Cambodian conflict. After the ASEAN Charter came into force in 2008, its annual agenda has expanded greatly.
As the ASEAN Community is approaching on Dec. 31, 2015, all members have been encouraged to accelerate their common action plans contained in the three main blueprints of political/security, economics and social/culture. At the November 2012 summit, the ASEAN leaders urged all countries to implement all of the roadmap toward the ASEAN community especially in the area of tariff and non-tariff barriers, investment liberalisation, connectivity and transportation as well regulatory reforms.
But none of the ASEAN media paid any attention to these. To completely integrate as one single community, ASEAN members have to implement a total of 667 action plans that cover the whole gamut of ASEAN cooperation.
Again, the ASEAN media have no clue at all, especially concerning their own countries. If journalists read the ASEAN documents carefully, they would be able to report on the state of ASEAN integration, which has reached only 74.5 percent. The hurdles in the remaining 25.6 percent could have been picked up as stories by investigative reporters.
Almost all the journalists missed one good story at the Phnom Penh on the establishment of ASEAN Institute of Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR). The new institute will rival the setting up of ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights. From now on, the AIPR will play a pivotal role in the grouping in providing inputs and issue early warnings before any conflict flares up among the ASEAN members.
After all, for the past 45 years ASEAN has been trying to find effective ways to deal with conflicts among its members. At this juncture, ASEAN members still rely on the World Court to settle their mutual problems, ignoring their own dispute settlement mechanism altogether.
As an intergovernmental organisation, ASEAN needs capable staffers who can understand the new strategic environment and offer inputs to the ASEAN leaders. Such early warnings could have helped ASEAN leaders to comprehend what might happen, say, on the South China Sea issue and beyond.
LACKING: SENSE OF COMMUNITY
Likewise, ASEAN journalists still have not yet developed a common sense of community among themselves.
For the past five decades, the European journalists have played a crucial role in promoting a strong sense of belonging to Europe or ‘Europe-ness’ among the publics. On the contrary, our ASEAN media are still very parochial and one-sided in their reporting on ASEAN, which regularly feature only bilateral issues and relations. They seldom venture beyond their own frontiers for stories even they are transnational in nature such as haze, avian flu, human trafficking, to name but a few.
ASEAN journalists have yet to write about ASEAN as a regional organisation with common objectives. So far, they write about ASEAN as an organisation with 10 different sets of bilateral relations.
When the economic crisis hit Thailand in 1997 and quickly spread out to other ASEAN countries, regional journalists were completely dumbfounded, completely lost for words. They did not understand what went wrong in their own countries, much less understand what really happened in other member countries. Mutual ignorance among ASEAN journalists continues, today especially on life and death issues such as HIV and AIDS, illegal drugs and climate change.
As ASEAN is moving toward a single community, journalists in the region face huge challenges in comprehending and reporting on potential and profound changes that might take place in the community of 620 million people with diverse cultures and languages.
The 10 ASEAN members comprise – literally – all political systems of the world, ranging from absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, from one-party rule to one-man rule and from pseudodemocracy to people’s democracy. It is also the region which has the world’s largest Muslim populations and largest Buddhist followers, not to mention Asia’s largest number of nearly 100 million Christians in the Philippines.
Within a dynamic region such as this, journalists with an enquiring mind and common sense would have an abundance of stories to write and specific issues to investigate and pursue in perpetuity.
(*Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor at the Nation Broadcasting Corporation Public Co, Ltd in Thailand.)