from Asia Unbound

ASEAN’s Haze Shows the Organization’s Futility

June 26, 2013

A tourist wearing a face mask passes the hazy skyline of the Marina Bay Sands casino and resort in Singapore on June 18, 2013. (Edgar Su/Courtesy Reuters)
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Haze continues to spread across Southeast Asia, the result primarily of burn-offs from farming by individuals and agribusinesses in Indonesia, combined with the dry summer weather and urban pollution in the region’s largest cities. As Yanzhong Huang notes, air pollution levels in some parts of penisular Southeast Asia have reached record highs this past week; the more proactive governments in the region, like Singapore, have taken health precautions like pushing nearly all residents to wear masks while outdoors and setting up centers across the city-state for low-income and elderly residents to get free face masks they can use. As Yanzhong notes, Singapore also is vowing to pursue companies that use polluting practices and cause this haze. Overall, countries in the region, like Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, appear to be pointing fingers at each other and engaging in diplomatic recriminations rather than collaborating to address the haze crisis and its causes.

It is certainly true that most Southeast Asian leaders are not exactly stepping up to the plate – Indonesia in particular, supposedly the region’s leader, has reacted to the haze crisis with a show of diplomatic pique that is useless – but in fact the countries in the region supposedly have a forum to handle non-traditional security threats like haze – their regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Haze has been on the agenda of ASEAN leaders’ meetings and foreign ministers’ meetings and environmental meetings for fifteen years now; I personally have attended at least three major ASEAN meetings where cooperation on reducing haze was discussed at length. More than ten years ago ASEAN inked an agreement on transboundary haze in which ASEAN countries vowed to take measures to reduce haze pollution. Of course, the agreement is vague, has no real enforcement mechanisms, and was not ratified by Indonesia, so it is of little use now.

In fact, the transboundary agreement on haze is a perfect ASEAN document: Grand in vision, vague in details and enforcement, and then not acted upon. Indeed, when a crisis actually erupts, the organization’s inherent weakness, which normally can be hidden behind smiling summits and reams of plans for cooperation, is exposed. The organization’s secretariat in Jakarta is badly underresourced, as every ASEAN member knows, and the current ASEAN Secretary-General, Vietnam’s former deputy foreign minister, is a capable diplomat but does not have the tools or the name recognition to push ASEAN members to take any serious action on haze. Of course, this is how ASEAN leaders want it – having a powerful, well-known Secretary General of the organization might diminish individual country leaders’ appeal to being the voice of Southeast Asia, an unofficial post claimed at various times by everyone from Mahathir Mohamad to Thaksin Shinawatra to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Meanwhile, average people in Southeast Asia suffer, as they have done every hot season for sixteen years now.