Towards an Ethos of Responsibility in Southeast Asia

April 2019 Feature

Are member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) accountable actors that care and provide for their own peoples and societies?  Do they conduct themselves in ways that reflect a felt sense of obligation toward their neighbours?  In a word, are ASEAN countries hospitable, are they responsible?

The violence perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State by their own government, and the tepid responses of many ASEAN countries toward Myanmar vis-à-vis the resulting refugee crisis, appear to suggest otherwise.  Indeed, the Rohingya crisis, some would say, is but the latest in a long litany of travesties in the region.  They are rendered the more tragic, so critics have contended, because of the apparent refusal by countries to protect not only their own populations, but those of their neighbours, from plights and tribulations whether natural or manmade.

Southeast Asia has long been viewed as a region whose governments jealously guard their national interests and mind their own business, or who are vociferously reminded to do so by aggrieved neighbours who invoke the ASEAN principle of “non-interference,” deploying it as one might a charm to fend off unwanted criticism or intrusion.  The concept of national sovereignty in Southeast Asia is ostensibly understood and upheld by ASEAN countries as the exclusive, enduring and inalienable right of nations to be undisturbed from without.  This view is absolutely consistent with international law.  It becomes a problem, however, when governments repress their own peoples—ironically, the very ones to whom they are or should be accountable—in the belief that they have the right to do as they please.

In the 1990s, developments in regional conflict management in Africa led the Sudanese diplomat and legal scholar Francis Deng and his associates to advance the ground-breaking notion of “sovereignty as responsibility.”  For Deng and friends, sovereignty is not merely about the rights of nations but equally their responsibility to perform the tasks expected of effective governments and to meet the needs of the societies under their care.  In the 2000s, this re-envisioning of sovereignty was further developed by an international commission into “the responsibility to protect,” which the United Nations subsequently adopted and refined into a doctrine regarding the protection of populations from grave harm.  Stressing that nations are obligated to protect populations against which crimes against humanity—such as genocide, ethnic cleansing and war crimes—are being carried out, the UN took the extraordinary step to sanction the use of “timely and decisive” military intervention by the international community against errant governments guilty of those offences.

Despite endorsing the responsibility to protect at the UN, the ASEAN countries did not back the notion of military intervention.  But while their ambivalence towards the responsibility to protect was not unique, combined with ASEAN’s categorical support for non-interference, the perceptible net effect was that of a region whose self-centred inhabitants cared little for each other.  Global norms may have evolved but the actual conduct of many nation-states is still working to catch up.

Be that as it may, developments in Southeast Asia over the past several years suggest change is afoot.  As a consequence of their growing awareness of and shared concern over the rise of transnational challenges facing the region—natural disasters such as devastating tsunamis and cyclones, viral epidemics like the 2003 SARS crisis, economic shocks like the 1997 financial crisis—the ASEAN countries and their dialogue partners have been developing mechanisms aimed at enhancing their capacities to assist one another and to respond collectively and meaningfully to those challenges.

In the area of disaster relief, they have formed the ASEAN Militaries Ready Group to support humanitarian missions, endorsed standard operating procedures for the utilisation of national assets in humanitarian emergencies under the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER), and sought ways to enhance the interoperability of the region’s armed forces when executing those missions.  In the area of economic recovery, they have put in place the Chiang Mai Initiative, a currency reserve pool for relieving ailing economies under duress.  Despite the absence of any legal obligation to assist, ASEAN countries have sought to aid and assist one another, whether on their own or collectively through any of the ASEAN-based regional mechanisms and platforms.

Ultimately, in a region still wedded to the non-interference principle, the onus in times of emergencies rests with the affected countries themselves to invite the help of international organisations and other countries.  However, this logic does not free the others from their obligation to assist.  Both recipient and provider equally share the responsibility to furnish succour, safety and security to affected populations: the recipient through her grant of consent and invitation; the provider through her contributions of aid, assistance and the like.  Indeed, a prospective provider cannot not respond to the prospective recipient because their very identities are predicated upon conditions of sociality rather than of autonomy.  In other words, the fundamental importance of the other to my very being is such that without her and her infinite demand for my hospitality, there can be no ‘I’ or self.  As Zlatan Filipovic has written, “One is a subject only and insofar as one is awakened or ‘sobered up’ to responsibility for the other person.”

The path towards an ethos of responsibility in Southeast Asia is neither simple nor straightforward.  So far, the signs that aspiration is being translated into reality are promising but embryonic.  According to the ethicist Philip Hallie, “Deeds speak the language of the great virtues far better than words do.  Words limp outside the gates of the mystery of compassion for strangers.” Responsibility is as responsibility does, and Southeast Asia would be the better for it.



Dr Tan See Seng is Professor of International Relations at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and concurrently Deputy Director and Head of Research of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.