Fightin' Words

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TIM LARIMER BangkokIndonesian diplomat J.B. Widodo hasn't seen Chiang Jing Ying's controversial painting Victim in May. But he knows what he won't like. To the Hanoi-based embassy official, the title of the piece suggests a topic too hot to handle: this year's Jakarta rioting that targeted primarily ethnic Chinese. So Widodo asked Vietnam's Ministry of Culture and Information to keep the painting out of an art competition in Hanoi in November for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). We're afraid the image of the painting is not true, not real, and will give a false impression, says Widodo. To show it in Hanoi would not be in line with the ASEAN spirit.Ah, the ASEAN spirit. Invoking that sacred cow usually means: thou shalt not offend thy neighbor. And for most of the group's 31 years, such restraint has been the core of a strict doctrine of non-interference. It deterred officials from commenting on matters in each other's countries, and it even moved them to censor words and works of art by their own countrymen that neighboring governments might find offensive. But the economic crisis that began sweeping the region 15 months ago has changed all that. These days there is more name-calling than hand-shaking.Until now, ASEAN's leaders would gather at their regular meetings, pose for pictures and congratulate themselves for creating the Asian economic miracle. They would defer to Indonesia's Suharto, who had been in power as long as ASEAN had been around. But the booming economies went bust, Suharto was dumped and old conflicts emerged like family secrets let out of the closet. The current longest-serving ASEAN leader, Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad, has become a magnet for criticism from once-reticent neighbors. And he is obligingly dishing it back. Precisely because of the crisis we are in, we are prone to conflict, Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan told TIME last week. All of us are turning inward, becoming a bit suspicious of outsiders.It is nothing short of remarkable that such a diverse coalition, whose only shared characteristic is geography, has survived at all. That's especially so since the perceived threats from common enemies of the past--China, the Soviet bloc, even the U.S. at times --have faded. One longtime ASEAN worry, socialist Vietnam, became a member of the group in 1995. Without a shared mission, the differences among the countries, the old, festering resentments and rivalries are emerging. Several recent flare-ups are sure to make seating arrangements a challenge at December's ASEAN summit in Hanoi as well as at next month's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Among them:The Philippines-Malaysia. Philippine President Joseph Estrada has criticized Malaysia for the arrest and incarceration of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Estrada, who took office in June, initially threatened to boycott the APEC summit. While his attendance now seems likely, he has hinted that he may request a meeting at the time with Anwar. Estrada also met in Manila two weeks ago with Anwar's teenage daughter, Nurul Izzah. Filipino politicians, meanwhile, have announced plans to fly to Kuala Lumpur to unofficially monitor Anwar's trial, which begins next week.Malaysia has fought back. Pro-Mahathir protesters demonstrated outside the Philippine embassy in Kuala Lumpur last week. They carried signs that read estrada has gone crazy and we are feeding 800,000 filipinos, a reference to the large contingent of imported domestic workers in Malaysia. The Philippines and Indonesia have a lot of unemployed, that's why we keep their workers, says Ibrahim Ali, a member of the supreme council of Malaysia's ruling party, the United Malays National Organization. If they think ASEAN isn't important, we can throw those workers out. Estrada, he adds, is not fit to be a leader, morally. Amid the row, routine military talks between the two countries have been canceled.PAGE 1  |  
Opposition to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad continues to grow, threatening his party's electoral prospects
Thailand's unusually assertive Foreign Minister makes the case that engagement isn't meddlingWere Philippine President Estrada and Indonesian President Habibie
 
Malaysia-Singapore. Long-simmering tensions were inflamed this year when Singapore banks offered generous interest rates on deposits of Malaysian ringgit, interpreted in Kuala Lumpur as a ploy to undermine Malaysia's economy. Then Singapore elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew published memoirs that included criticism of Malaysia's leaders. Malaysia banned Singapore's military jets from flying in Malaysian air space. The two countries are also feuding over the removal of an immigration post from a railway terminal in Singapore. During September's Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, local crowds booed Singaporean athletes.Indonesia-Singapore. The region's worst-hit economy, Indonesia expressed irritation that it didn't receive more help from its smaller but wealthier neighbor. Singapore criticized Indonesia last year for not controlling forest fires that helped create a suffocating haze over much of Southeast Asia. Indonesian President B.J. Habibie bad-mouthed Singapore as nothing more than a small, red speck on a map.Malaysia-Indonesia. The Mahathir government didn't help matters by rounding up thousands of Indonesian laborers and sending them back home at the first hint of economic difficulties last year. After Anwar's arrest, Habibie canceled a visit to Malaysia, claiming he was too busy, and later, like Estrada, met with Anwar's daughter. In Jakarta last month, a senior Malaysian politician, Ghaffar Baba, slammed Indonesia's press for championing Anwar's cause. Maybe he is more fitting to be a leader in Indonesia, he said, because I heard it is O.K. to be homosexual here. Then he told a lawyer raising funds for Anwar's defense: I suggested he donate the money to the Indonesian people for food. Indonesians reacted by protesting outside Malaysia's embassy in Jakarta, demanding that Ghaffar Baba go home.While the change in tenor throughout the region seems sudden, it took root years ago when ASEAN made overtures to its ostracized neighbors, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. All but Cambodia have since been admitted, but expanding the sphere has meant including members who play by new rules. In the past, authoritarians who oversaw booming economies--in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia--meshed well with democracies that oversaw booming economies--in Thailand, the Philippines. Communist Vietnam and Laos and the military junta of Burma are different and less eager to join ASEAN's free-market carnival. It's made it more difficult for us to deal with partners like the United States and the European Union, says a Thai diplomat. It was one thing for them to deal with ASEAN. It's another for them to deal with an ASEAN that includes Burma.The good news for ASEAN is that the bilateral spats aren't serious enough to destroy the nine-nation bloc. The bad news is that the squabbling prevents the group from tackling its most pressing shared issue: how to revive Asia's economies. And the downturn only adds to the group's identity crisis. When everyone was growing and doing well, we were on auto pilot, says Sharon Siddiqui, a Singapore-based analyst. Growth was a permanent feature of our psyche. Now that has changed, the perception of the organization has changed. Opportunities for broader interaction may yet come. A younger generation of leaders, personified by people like Malaysia's Anwar and Thailand's Surin, advocates a broader role for ASEAN in which countries--acting as good neighbors--will sometimes involve themselves in another's affairs. If what happens in another country affects us, why shouldn't we be allowed to express our views? asks Surin.It's a point worth pondering. For all the so-called ASEAN spirit, the group has ducked contentious regional issues--human rights, for example, or the haze from Indonesian forest fires--that require its attention. We need to be more candid with one another, says Chandra Muzaffar, a political scientist at Kuala Lumpur's University of Malaya. If we continue to sweep things under the carpet, that could lead to problems. Stifling criticism is a recipe for instability. As Malaysian-born artist Chiang Jing Ying is learning, the old ASEAN spirit left little room for provocative expression. If Vietnam is pressured by ASEAN and bans the painting, then it shows that ASEAN's spirit is not democratic, she says. The new ASEAN spirit may have no choice but to embrace artwork like hers and all the debate that comes with it.With reporting by Hannah Beech/Hong Kong, David Liebhold and Zamira Loebis/Jakarta, Nelly Sindayen/Manila and Ravi Velloor/Singapore  |  2
Opposition to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad continues to grow, threatening his party's electoral prospects
Thailand's unusually assertive Foreign Minister makes the case that engagement isn't meddlingWere Philippine President Estrada and Indonesian President Habibie