IT CANNOT be denied: Filipinos are far from thinking of themselves as ASEAN. UP Political Science professor Natalia Morales, in a commentary published in these pages last Monday, traces this lack of an ASEAN mind-set to what she calls our "innocent narcissism," a self-absorption that stems from our "ongoing search for national identity."
We can debate her premises, but we cannot argue with her conclusion: Belonging to an ASEAN community, much less to "one caring and sharing community," does not seem to figure much in the Filipino consciousness.
The ongoing high-level meetings in Manila among ASEAN officials and their counterparts in some of the world's leading powers have encouraged us yet again to put our best foot forward; but the hype and the hoopla about the meetings cannot cover up, or make up for, their lack of resonance in our daily life.
This is a pity, because this week's meetings have in fact made some remarkable headway. Given the culture of consensus that animates the 40-year-old regional organization, the carefully choreographed initiatives announced in the last several days must be considered to be genuine breakthroughs.
The most important is the decision to include the formation of a human rights commission in the proposed ASEAN Charter. The diplomatic community gathered in Manila was prepared for a rejection of the provision, or at least a postponement of any decision on it. The military rulers of Burma (Myanmar) were expected to object to the provision. (Insider reports suggest that Burmese officials did raise objections, but, regrettably, they were not the only ones.) When the ASEAN foreign ministers ended up agreeing on the basic principle, therefore, and announced that the proposed charter would include a provision on the human rights commission, the unexpected news was greeted enthusiastically.
To be sure, the victory for the democratic cause was less than complete. Crucial details of the human rights commission and the process of forming it were left for future meetings to determine. In other words, it was a typical diplomatic advance, a cautiously worded declaration unburdened by too much specificity.
But Foreign Minister George Yeo of Singapore, the chairman of the next ASEAN Ministerial Meetings, could not contain his optimism. "Myanmar had a positive attitude toward all of this. At the ministerial level, we have reached a consensus," he noted.
Another milestone is the high-profile participation of the North Korean foreign minister, who visited the Philippines for the first time to bask in the applause of regional officials, who praised the isolated nation's decision to shut down its nuclear facilities, and to forge closer links with ASEAN countries. The Philippines, for one, entered into an agreement with the Stalinist regime in North Korea to forge a "bilateral consultation mechanism," one that institutionalizes regular consultations between the two countries.
North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun called the agreement "an important phase in our bilateral relations," and added: "Our cooperation is moving from strength to strength."
The entire region should welcome this "cooperation," because agreements like it strengthen the Six-Party Talks and provide Pyongyang less reason to prefer military action over diplomacy.
But if there is an initiative that will foster greater ASEAN consciousness among Filipinos, it is the agreement on sanctuary.
Under the agreement, classified as a standard operating procedure, citizens of any ASEAN country caught in civil conflicts can seek refuge in the embassy of any other ASEAN country. The SOP provides that, in case of imminent danger, "a citizen of an ASEAN member country may directly seek assistance from the missions of other ASEAN member countries or go directly to shelters or sanctuaries provided by their missions."
This is an initiative as sweeping, and as useful, as the earlier historic agreements to do away with visas for ASEAN citizens travelling to ASEAN destinations. Sanctuary will benefit overseas workers not only from the Philippines, but from neighboring countries, too. Thousands of Filipinos undergo pre-departure orientation programs; if they learn to look at other ASEAN embassies as sanctuaries, too, Filipinos may yet learn to leave their innocent narcissism abroad.
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