MANILA, Feb 26 (Reporting ASEAN) – Ten-year old Cedric James Planas still recalls the day his school celebrated ASEAN Day, where he and other students wore the national costumes of other member states to mark the birth of South-east Asia’s main regional grouping on Aug. 8.
“I was Mr Malaysia in grade 2,” said the student of Placido del Mundo Elementary School in Quezon City, located around 10 kilometres north of the Philippine capital. “I wore a Muslim attire.”
Now in grade 5, Planas says he continues to learn about the Association of South-east Asian Nations not only through activities meant to raise awareness of it but also through his Filipino-language social studies class, which discusses Philippine and Asian history. “Whatever is in the news about my country and ASEAN, it is taught in school too — we call it current events,” Planas said.
The launch of the ASEAN Community at the end of 2015, which will involve deeper and faster integration among ASEAN’s 10 member countries, appears to have spurred more efforts to be aware of the Philippines’ membership in and participation in its regional ‘family’ – as well as its links to the larger South-east Asia it is part of. But whether this is working toward better understanding of the Philippines’ commitments under the ASEAN Community, the importance of belonging to a regional grouping, or how it can make use of ASEAN integration to improve Filipino citizens’ lives better, remains to be seen.
The Philippines has at times been seen as a bit of the odd person out in ASEAN, although it is a founding member of the 48-year old organization that has now matured into a community. An archipelagic country separated by vast oceans from mainland South-east Asia, it is often seen as quite insular and more interested in the West – including the United States – than it is in its own neighbours.
Philippine media are vibrant, noisy and diverse, but offer little space to originally done stories focusing on the region. Like many newspapers in the region, its media cover ASEAN mostly through its official meetings – when they are held in the country – and little of analyses of ASEAN’s work.
Yet in terms of international diplomacy, the Philippines has a reputation in ASEAN – or at least until some years back – of actively speaking up for issues like human rights.
“The Philippines has been known for being a strong pillar supporting the growth and progress of the organisation since its birth,” said Charles Jose, spokesperson of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
He is, predictably, more positive about Filipinos’ awareness about Philippine initiatives in ASEAN. For instance, he says, it advocated the “rule of law as the firm foundation for the settlement of disputes for a rules-based community bound by shared principles, values and norms” even before the current escalation of tensions around the South China Sea disputes. While the disputes are decades old, they are back in the spotlight due to actions taken by China against claimants that include some ASEAN states, including the Philippines.
In terms of ASEAN community-building, an initiative that will continue under plans that ASEAN leaders have set for the next decade, Jose points out that the Philippines was instrumental in one of the 15 priority projects in the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity – the creation of a nautical highway through the Roll-on/Roll-off (Ro-Ro) shipping network and Short Shipping system, completed in 2013. The Philippines also hosts the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity.
Jose says the country likewise encourages the active participation of ASEAN peoples in policy-making and the greater engagement of stakeholders and civil society in its processes.
Over the years, the Philippines has also taken part in regional initiatives such as participating in the ASEAN Troika alongside Thailand and Indonesia, and it pushed for Cambodia’s entry into ASEAN after decades of civil war.
As chair of ASEAN – member countries take turns with this responsibility – the Philippines in 2006 pushed for the inclusion of a provision on the establishment of an ASEAN Human Rights body in the ASEAN Charter negotiations, “reflecting the country’s position as the staunchest advocate for human rights in the regional organisation,” added Jose.
These give Jose reason to believe that ASEAN has been on the Filipino public’s radar for years, even if conflicts and related issues make more headlines than ministerial meetings and declarations. “To them (Filipinos), ASEAN is a region of peace and harmony, one where they can travel freely, engage in work or business, and reap the benefits of a regional economy that is doing well and which remains promising for decades to come.”
But how much of these are linked by the Filipino constituency to their everyday lives?
What does the acronym ‘ASEAN’ bring to mind, especially as the Philippines is part of the ASEAN Community that will be around for decades to come, and when member countries speak of building an ASEAN identity? The Community requires the Philippine government to harmonise trade rules and business practices, build closer relations, and offers opportunities for closer links in culture, education, physical insfrastructure, among others.
Much of what is happening in ASEAN remains underreported, if not under, the media’s radar, explained Ares Gutierrez, managing editor of ‘The Manila Times’, an English-language national broadsheet. “It is ironic that people outside ASEAN are more interested or knowledgeable” about regional event and trends than those in ASEAN’s own member countries.
But Pia Lee-Brago, who writes on foreign affairs for the ‘Philippine Star’, another major daily, says that ASEAN has transformed from “mere talk shop to a newsworthy” organisation. Gone is its “staid profile” in the Philippines, in large part because of the creation of the ASEAN Community and other regional efforts toward integration, she believes.
She added that the priority given to ASEAN coverage by local news organisations is “no longer limited to summits or ministerial meetings as the regional grouping undergoes changes.” Today, “ASEAN is interesting and its agenda and the issues it puts forward are newsworthy,” she said.
But there is a need to go deeper in explaining how ASEAN integration works and what its benefits can be for the Philippines, points out Luis Teodoro, deputy director of the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility.The Philippine government is not doing enough beyond just mentioning ASEAN. “What’s missing is what integration means, for example, and what the advantages are,” he said.
News coverage of ASEAN remains “spotty and often lacks context,” he observed. There seems to be little media interest or even knowledge of the organisation at all, he added. “There’s some effort to explain what ASEAN is about, but it’s rare.”
Jose, however, says there are efforts to promote ASEAN or create more public space for discussion of the regional grouping.
He says the foreign ministry has used the media, in particular radio and television, to promote ASEAN awareness among the public. The foreign office conducts lectures on ASEAN community-building in universities and colleges. Other discussions have been held as more interest in ASEAN and the ASEAN Community is sparked by the integration process.
At times, the Filipino public may not relate ASEAN to local concerns, but it does have some links to people’s daily lives.
Gutierrez of ‘The Manila Times’ says ASEAN’s presence has been felt immensely in rehabilitation efforts following the massive earthquake that struck central Bohol province in 2013. “I didn’t know that ASEAN has a standby disaster response hub based in Malaysia until after the quake, as the ASEAN disaster response team was among the first to come to the country’s aid. Two planeloads of goods and equipment were flown into Bohol by the Royal Malaysian Air Force,” he recalled. (END/Reporting ASEAN)