The people of South East Asia are among the most friendly, tolerant and hard working people in the world. Yet, this region has been plagued with conflicts for decades. Exploited by European powers, occupied by Japan, carpet-bombed by the USA and led by hideous dictators, most of the region has suffered too much for too long.
Those conflicts involving the global powers may now be in the past, but as the countries of the region move towards more democracy old rivalries have not been forgotten.
Across ASEAN – the Association of South East Asian nations – ethnically based armed groups clash with governments and local people live in dangerous, poor and insecure communities. In Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines old grievances still run deep.
These are not the stuff of the Cold War with ideologies battling for global supremacy, or the stuff of the modern global clash between secular tolerance and Islamic extremism. They are local, they are within borders, and they are largely between the ruling elites and local identities for too long denied expression or their fair share of resources and power.
But change is possible. The differences and grievances are not impossible to overcome. And change is happening, often led by the community of states that wants to look after it’s own backyard.
Five years ago, as UK Special Representative for Peacebuilding I attended and spoke at an early ASEAN forum for peace and security. A small investment of aid from the UK conflict fund had supported the event and while there were tensions in the room – Indonesia was enthusiastic about change, whereas the continuing dictatorships and former communist states were more skeptical – it was clear to me that there was real potential for a new approach.
Much like the reconstruction of the African Union to replace the old Organisation of African States, where the principle of non-intervention had been replaced by a principle of non-indifference, ASEAN had the potential to tackle regional conflict with cultural understanding, neighbour-to-neighbour support, and capacity building to strengthen governance.
The ten ASEAN members – Myanmar, Cambodia, Brunei, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Thailand – have since worked to create peacebuilding and security systems, and individual governments are finally sitting down with rebel movements to discuss building peace.
Last week I attended and spoke at another conference, organized by Wilton Park but in Jakarta, Indonesia. It was supported by the UK and Australian governments and attended by senior figures from government and rebel movements in Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. Crucially it was set in the context of ASEAN discussing domestic conflicts within the region.
We shared experience, including with Northern Ireland, and we discussed the importance of confidence building, trust, independent reformed security institutions, economic gains and devolution to peace agreements that are sustainable.
Making peace is never easy. As we see in the Philippines just now – with the recent violence threatening the progress of their peace agreement with the Moro Liberation Front – making peace requires long term vision, leadership and sometimes patience. But it is more likely to succeed if all the neighbours are on board.
If the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2015-2030, due to be agreed in September, are to help those who live in the worst places, they need to address conflict. And if the international community is to address conflict in a meaningful way, they need to support regional efforts, building the capacity of groups of countries to prevent and stop violent conflict. ASEAN and the AU are showing the way, step by step. We need to back them.