I have set a goal for myself. I want to travel more throughout Southeast Asia to learn about the region that I call home. So far, I have been to five Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia.  I have travelled across Cambodia and Indonesia for roughly a month in total last year alone. Part of the reason why I do want to see more of Southeast Asia is because I believe in the importance of closer integration across the region. I want to know more about it before the actual integration begins.

At heart, I am an internationalist in the sense that I believe in free trade across countries. True global free trade is hard if not impossible to achieve, however. There are just too many competing interests for a true global agreement to come to being. The Doha Round, which aimed at reducing trade barriers across the world, has been going on for years now without much progress to show. Even if by some miracle there will be a global accord, the result will be a bastardized version of free trade, with a horn in the forehead.

With the global ideal stuck, many are left to the less than ideal bilateral free trade arrangement, or a regional one. I see the Southeast Asian grouping Asean as the second-best option which is realistic to a truly global trade accord that is now a phantasm.

With more than 500 million persons living across the region, the opportunity for economic growth and more is massive that no one country in Southeast Asia can achieve alone.

The integration is already underway and 2015 is set to be the year when the Asean Economic Community (AEC) will come into being, where the whole of Asean will be a single market. Each Asean member will effectively maintain an equal free trade agreement with one another. Such closer economic integration will inevitably will closer relationship between individuals across countries. One hopes the closer integration creates more goodwill than conflict.

Things do not look too good on the ground however and so, on that front Southeast Asia is probably off to not so great a start.

The challenge is when a majority in one society thinks the others are their inferiors. In Malaysia, many look down on Indonesians as most Indonesians in Malaysia are mostly low-skilled workers. The association by profession has been generalized to include all Indonesians everywhere. Burmese refugees suffer no less. Meanwhile in the Land Below the Wind, it is not uncommon for Sabahans to hold overtly racist views against Filipino who reside in the state illegally.

It is not just Malaysia and it is not just about a sense of superiority. The Thais and Cambodians have issues between them. Between them are hundreds of years of history. Some Cambodians, as I learned during my travels in Cambodia, distrust Vietnamese.

There is no silver bullet to the problem and it will take years to overcome the ill-will of ancient and modern origins. Nevertheless, equality of rights will have a role to play in creating a more harmonious and an integrated Southeast Asia. When everybody is granted equal rights and it is actually enforced where even foreign low-skilled workers are not discriminated against by domestic laws, then perhaps we can start to respect each other regardless of national origin.

Here is where the Asean Charter and the Asean Human Rights Declaration come to play. Yet, these two documents are crafted to disappoint. They are only paper tigers.

The Asean Charter is only important to the diplomats who drafted it. Its ratification was a process of rubber stamping, driven from the top down and appears to have no effect on the life of ordinary persons so far. It is so far detached from the ground that citizens of Southeast Asian countries do not feel any kind of ownership towards the Charter the way many do towards the constitution of their own country. After all, there was no referendum and the citizens themselves were not involved in the process.

As with the Asean Human Rights Declaration, too many Southeast Asian governments violate some of the typical fundamental rights so blatantly. The latest happened in Laos where an activist, Sombath Somphone, has been missing for about a month. His abduction was recorded by a CCTV. He was arrested by the police and has yet to be heard from since.  The Laotian government is widely suspected to be involved in the abduction, especially given his strong opposition to the construction of a dam in the northern part of Laos, which is backed by the government.

Despite the Human Rights Declaration celebrated by Asean diplomats, Asean governments have not even voiced their concern of the potential violation. It is the policy of non-interference that matters and that probably shows how useful the Declaration is at securing human rights in Asean.

So, we do not have an egalitarian mechanism to help with harmonious people-to-people integration.

Well, we do have a flawed one. Instead of a proper political structure to help with the integration, we have cultural shows with the accusation of culture-stealing to follow.

How sad.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in the Selangor Times on January 18 2013.

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