Thai government’s latest ads reminding Thais to be a good host to the on-going ASEAN Summit in Bangkok says a lot about ASEAN identity.
By reminding Thais to act as a good host, not different to hosting a big international sports event, it is as if we are outside of it and not part of it.
How many Thais describe themselves as an Aseanite, an ASEAN citizen? Some Thais may also call themselves Asian when talking to Westerners but very few will identify themselves as Southeast Asians, not to mention Aseanite.
The word ‘Aseanite’ doesn’t really exist, and it exemplifies the challenge of carving a common and shared ASEAN or Southeast Asian identity among citizens of the 10 nation states.
ASEAN bureaucrats and those at the respective foreign ministries in the 10 member states are often inhabiting their own alternative universe of endless cocktails and conferences. The three-day ASEAN Summit lasting through Sunday reflects that.
Thai soldiers flaunted its anti-terrorism readiness in Nonthaburi province to show how ready they are to protect ASEAN leaders, and how the average person has absolutely nothing to do with the summit that could dictate some of their economic future.
Meanwhile ASEAN official Twitter account @ASEAN, which enjoys only a moderate followers of 107K after nearly 10 years of its existence despite ASEAN having a population of 664 millions, insists on the following motto: “One Vision, One Identity, One Community.”
It’s been 52 years since ASEAN was established. To be fair, one of the biggest accomplishments of ASEAN is that the specter of an all-out war among ASEAN member states is today no longer thinkable. Peace amongst our nations has lasted for at least the past two decades.
The fact that passport holders of ASEAN member states are no longer required to apply for visas to enter another ASEAN member country as a tourist was also a boon for regional tourism.
It was my ex-colleague at The Nation newspaper turned international relations expert Thitinan Pongsudhirak who rightly told me a few years back that nothing has ever connected ASEAN people like intra-region low-cost airlines.
Today, it’s affordable for an average Thai middle class to fly to Cebu in the Philippines and not just Manila; to Bali and not just Jakarta; to Nha Trang and not just Hanoi, and to Yangon, or Luang Prabang for a weekend stay.
Over the past decade or so, major and secondary destinations in ASEAN member states have become more accessible. Traveling also teaches Thai children about their neighbor countries in lessons that might be missing from nationalistic and often parochial textbooks in school.
By visiting our neighbors, Thais will hopefully learn more and have the chance to appreciate banh mi and not just pho in Vietnam, appreciate both Penang as well as Singaporean laksa, and be enticed by Adobo in Manila or Mohinga in Yangon.
Currently, it is rare for a Thai to be able to name a single dish from Myanmar despite hosting more than two million workers from Myanmar in the kingdom. Cuisines from the Philippines or Cambodia are equally unknown to average Thais.
It is also hoped that the new generation of Thais and fellow ASEAN youths will find lessons in the bitter and sometimes bloody past with their neighbors, so that we can move forward forging a common ASEAN or Southeast Asian identity, and be good friends to each other.
Last week, I was on a press tour with fellow ASEAN journalists in China. I mentioned to fellow journalist Dao Minh Tuan, executive editor of Hanoi Times, that I feel a sense of contrition that when I was too young, Thailand during the height of the Cold War allowed American war planes to take off from the northeast to bomb his country every few minutes to a devastating effects that still reverberate today.
I still feel guilty that the Thai state once supported the murderous Khmer Rouge simply because “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
Some may simply want to look ahead and forget about our past, but I think without that we would not appreciate how far we have come from the cruelty of four or five decades ago, or how important it is to deepen the people-to-people ties within the region, and not just Government-to-Government relations.
Hopefully, one day not too far from now, many young Thais and their neighbors would proudly say they are an Aseanite as well.
I have an ASEAN dream, but it is not confined to the overtly-secured venue of the ASEAN Summit. It is a dream of ties among people, and a dream of shared identities.