What were the other ASEAN countries up to in Manila?

MANILA, Philippines – We know what President Rodrigo Duterte was up to during the 3-day Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Manila. 

We also know about the activities of the other major players in the summit, from the US and Japan to the UN. 

But for the delegations and leaders from the 9 other ASEAN member countries, who have been regularly meeting with each other throughout the year, the summit – which was attended by the bloc's dialogue partners – the Manila summit was an opportunity to tackle other concerns. 

Here's a rundown of what the 9 other ASEAN member countries' activities at the regional meeting.

It was Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc who came to Manila for the ASEAN Summit, where he led the Mekong-Japan Summit among Vietnam, Japan, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.

In a speech at the ASEAN-UN Summit, Phuc again brought up the need to promote multilateralism and international law, alluding to the South China Sea issue, where Vietnam is also a claimant.

Vietnam didn’t make much noise at the ASEAN Summit but they have already scored wins days before that, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit which they hosted in Da Nang.

A state visit by US President Donald Trump resulted to a joint statement getting Trump to “reaffirm their shared commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes” in the South China Sea.

But they also kept it friendly with China, issuing a joint statement where they supported the One China Policy and said they will “resolutely oppose” attempts for Taiwan’s independence.

Vietnam has no stake at this, but it keeps China on its side. Because of this, Forbes said Vietnam may have been the biggest winner in Trump’s Asia tour. 

For the Philippines, Quang committed to Duterte an initial donation of 4,000 bags of rice for the residents of Marawi. Duterte, in turn, promised to release Vietnamese fishermen caught poaching in our seas, according to Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol. 

Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah held a bilateral meeting with Duterte right away when he arrived in Manila on Sunday, November 12.

All we know is that Duterte thanked Bolkiah for the humanitarian assistance extended to the Philippines at times of calamities. Duterte also thanked Bolkiah for fair treatment of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Brunei.

Both leaders also talked about the threats from North Korea’s ballistic missile program. 

Bolkiah also seemed to have kept a balancing act between the superpowers US and China.

In his speech at the ASEAN-US Summit, Bolkiah said US is a strategic partner of ASEAN and urged the US to collaborate with Southeast Asia when it comes to micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs.)

In his speech at the ASEAN-China Summit, he said he valued the support of China in enhancing peace, stability and prosperity in the region.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha also kept a low profile during the summit.

Human rights groups would have wanted ASEAN leaders to discuss military rule in Thailand. (READ: The Deafening Silence of ASEAN on Human Rights Violations)

Prayut was the Thai Army Chief who led a coup in 2014 after months of political crisis. He said they are still on track towards having a democratic elections in 2018.

The junta rule was not discussed at the ASEAN Summit, as far as we know. If it was, no one wants to talk about it. Even the local press kept the news to a minimum.

What we know is that when the ASEAN Summit was near its end, Russian warships arrived in Thailand for an unofficial visit.

Thailand is on Russia’s list to boost defense ties with, the naval presence might just be another manifestation of Vladimir Putin’s bid to increase his country's presence in the Asia-Pacific, said The Diplomat.

Fun fact: Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith celebrated his 72nd birthday up in the air, while en route to the Philippines for the ASEAN Summit.

His delegation had a fruitcake prepared on the plane to celebrate the prime minister’s birthday.

Sisoulith cut his trip short and left the Philippines on Tuesday, November 14. What was so urgent in Laos? Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting.

Officials of Laos and China are already discussing to jointly hold a Visit Laos-China Year in 2019. It’s an effort to boost tourism to Laos, mainly from Chinese tourists – a huge market for the small, landlocked nation.

A Laos-China railway is also being built along that effort.

While in Manila, Sisoulith held bilateral meetings with Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Vietnamese PM Phuc and UN’s Guterres.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had one major item on the agenda coming to the ASEAN-EU Summit: to protect his country's palm oil industry.

EU’s plan to restrict import of palm oil into Europe would negatively affect Malaysia’s industry, Razak told EU President Donald Tusk.

Razak had the backing of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, whose country also has a sizeable palm oil industry. Razak said Tusk promised he would look into it.

In its bid to support anti-deforestation efforts, EU is slated to be strict on allowing only environmentally-sustainable palm oil. 

Razak called it a “discrimination” that will “jeopardize the income, welfare and livelihood of 600,000 smallholders in Malaysia and 17.5 million of them in Indonesia.” 

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong officially took over the ASEAN Chairmanship at the closing ceremonies on November 14.

Lee launched the theme for 2018: "Resilience and Innovation," with a focus on security, anti-terrorism and regional economic integration.

It will be Singapore who will be handling the talks for the Code of Conduct (COC) of Parties in the South China Sea.

Singapore is also the country-coordinator for the ASEAN-China dialogue.

As such, rhetoric between China and Singapore is friendly. Even leading up to the ASEAN Summit, leaders of both countries were full of praises of each other.

At the end of the summit, Lee said that the “calm” talks on the South China Sea should not be taken for granted, echoing the official stance of the ASEAN. 

All eyes were on Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi over the crisis of the displaced Rohingya Muslim minority.

UN’s Guterres and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised the issue with Suu Kyi during the 3-day summit.

Trump and Duterte also released a statement that “welcomes Myanmar government’s commitment to end the violence.”

But for Human Rights Watch (HRW), the ASEAN and its leaders merely mentioned the crisis in passing, and fell way short on discussing accountability.  

"What ASEAN and Myanmar had done today is that they've checked the Rohingya box and said we're looking at the humanitarian aspects without a whisper of the fact that this human rights catastrophe has been inflicted by the Myanmar security forces and continues even while we speak," HRW Deputy Director Philem Kine said.

At the Business and Investment Summit, Suu Kyi called for more decision-making roles for women in the workforce, saying that gender discrimination still exists.

This speech suffered a backlash, however, with critics noting that she has failed to act on Rohingya women being raped in western Myanmar.

Human Rights groups also wanted the ASEAN to discuss Cambodia’s government crackdown on the opposition and the media.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is one of the world’s and Asia’s longest-serving ruler, making his regime essentially authoritarian as put by critics.

Instead, Hun Sen benefitted from a fuzzy media display of meeting with Philippine soap actress Marian Rivera in a welcome dinner for him and Suu Kyi, the summit’s early birds.

Opposition leaders are being hunted by the Hun Sen regime for allegedly conspiring with the United States to overthrow his government. But in Manila, Hun Sen posed for a photo with Trump doing the thumbs up.  

At the Summit, Hun Sen called out US embassy officials for intervening in internal affairs but praised Trump as being “most respectful.”

Observers see this as his play at flattery with Trump, whom he supported during the US elections. 

Apart from tag-teaming with Malaysia to call out EU on its palm oil restrictions, Indonesia has a crucial stake on anti-terrorism efforts of the regional bloc.

Before the ASEAN Summit, Indonesia was pushing for the creation of a mini-Interpol in Southeast Asia.

Duterte wanted to create a trilateral task force between the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia to combat ISIS.

At the summit, UN’s Guterres said that “continued trilateral cooperation among the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia will strengthen regional peace and security.”

In its declaration, ASEAN highlighted the need for a values-based and jobs-based approach to fight radicalization, including good rehabilitation and reintegration programs for radicalized individuals. – Rappler.com 

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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