31st summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)

Jiten Yumnam *

Heads of State of powerful and rich countries of the world, the US, Russia, China, Japan, Australia, Japan, South Korea, EU etc converged in Manila to attend the range of activities in sidelines of the 31st summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), held recently at the Philippines capital of Manila on 13 th November, with the theme "Partnering for Change, Engaging the World".

There's questions as to why powerful countries of the world find the ASEAN summit so important? Simultaneously, the question is why many developed countries converged and intensifying their investment in Manipur and across India's North East. Indeed, the North East India Business Summit in Imphal, Manipur from 20-21 November already show the participation of political and business representatives of Japan, several EU countries and selected members of ASEAN member states.

The ASEAN Summit, organized with an aspiration for a stronger and integrated economic community akin to European Union is being held trader the shadow of contestation between China and several ASEAN member states in the South China SEA and also the controversy surrounding North Korea's Nuclear test and the threats and counter threats from US and its allied countries.

The 31st ASEAN summit adopted several declarations to promote free trade and enhanced economic cooperation among member states. ASEAN's also signed free trade agreement with Hong Kong after China, Korea, Japan, India, and Australia-New Zealand covering broad areas of market access liberalization, trade facilitation and co-operation to facilitate trade in goods and services in the region.

Other declarations include promoting gender responsive implementation of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and sustainable development goals, on promoting women, peace and security in ASEAN etc. Key agreements were also with China to improve connectivity by synergizing common priorities identified in the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025 and China's "Belt and Road". ASEAN and China also came up with a Framework for a Code of Conduct for South China Sea.

For a meeting that should exclusively be discussing the economic and political matters of ASEAN countries, the summit is overshadowed by the dominating presence of USA, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, European Union, India etc, which strongly explains the nature of politics and the economic manifestation of the regional formation. Economic and defence talks and agreements assume centrality in a confusing mix of permutations and combinations in the sidelines of ASEAN summit.

ASEAN become a focus for competition of rich, developed countries of the world. South East Asia is important for China, Japan, Korea to expand their market and economic priorities, other than the US, Australia, Canada and European Union etc.

India also wants to be part of the East Asia and ASEAN and to be part of the competition of the resources in ASEAN countries, such as oil, minerals, water and even human resources and labour. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi also held talks with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the 31st ASEAN Summit. India focused on strengthening defense cooperation in Asia Pacific region and held talks with US, Japan and Australia, towards reviving the 'Quadrilateral' alliance and resolving to strive for a "free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region to serves the long-term interests of all countries in the region and of the world at large".

The meeting held a day before the ASEAN summit also discussed the "common challenges of terrorism and proliferation linkages impacting the region. India's Ministry of External Affairs stated that India's engagement with ASEAN and wider Indo-Pacific region has acquired momentum after India made its relations with its East Asian neighbours a foreign policy priority trader India's "Act East Policy" introduced at the 12th ASEAN-India Summit in Myanmar in November 2014.

The increasing push for free trade agreements in ASEAN and with other countries has led to liberalization of economy and the aggressive intrusion of foreign multinational companies seeking gold, oil, copper and other minerals. Such massive investment and corporate expansionism is also associated with increased militarism and wide social and environmental challenges in South East Asian.

Jerry from West Papua shared that US, Australia and Canadian mining companies unleash plunder of their minerals such as Gold. Freeport mining company operates extensively in West Papua and committing human rights abuses on indigenous Papuan population with Indonesian military. Ms. Beverly of JOAS, Malaysia shared that the Government of Malaysia destroyed indigenous peoples' forest areas with oil palm plantations without recognizing their rights. Similarly, the Oil Exploration by Australian oil companies in East Timor is a major concern among its people, both over the social and environmental impacts and the massive profiteering by oil companies from their land and resources.

The pursuance of a liberalized economy and free trading has reduced Philippines, the host country of 31st ASEAN as one of the poorest countries among the ASEAN countries. The niocos region, Cordillera and the Mindanao region in the Philippines, blessed with minerals such as gold, copper, magnetite etc are now open up for mining to foreign multinational companies. Newmont, Freeport, Lafarge, some of the world's biggest mining companies operates freely in clear violation of indigenous peoples rights. Philippines today hosted multifaceted conflicts and associated militarism, especially in its mineral rich areas. The country, challenged by dismal economy, resorted to export its labour force to work as domestic maids and other unskilled labour in rich developed countries, involving other forms of violations.

Tobacco farming in the Philippines is a clear example of exploitation by Multi-National Company (MNC) like the Philip Morris and further complicated by corruptive practices by politicians and corporate bodies and the lack of state support, viz, failure to provide farming subsidy and irrigation etc. In Pasaleng, Caraman West, Pugupud, Illocos Norte, fishing communities expressed concern with the proposed plan to construct a Seven Star mega hotel by the Government in their village, which will not only confiscate part of their land, but also impose restriction on fishing in the sea front.

An overt insistence on free trade agreement will only lead to fostering a liberalized development model thus facilitating the capital investment and the direct involvement of MNCs to target the land, water, minerals for commercial exploitation. Institutionalizing the rights and monopoly of corporate bodies, including the right of corporations to sue Governments in circumstances of infringing or depriving their commercial interest and profits is a serious concern to secure accountability of corporate bodies.

The other concerns are the overt focus on infrastructure, trade and commerce which will aggravate land grabbing and resource plunder, thus depriving and marginalizing communities. The increased mining concessions in Mindanao, Illocos and Cordilleras to Australian and Canadian companies in the Philippines and the land concession for plantations and dam building in Cambodia to Chinese and Vietnamese companies has drawn much concerns and condemnations from human rights organizations due to failure to consider the human rights of affected communities.

The overt focus on combating violent extremism and terrorism in all its forms and manifestations by ASEAN members is also seen as a step towards political repression of communities and organizations calling for a stronger integration of human rights and for respecting for the environment, labour rights and for stronger accountability of corporate bodies involved in pursuing development across the region.

Civil Societies from ASEAN member states asserted their concern about ASEAN governments' corporate agenda and implications of free trade agreements like Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). In Cambodia we see foreign corporations threatening to leave every time the workers demand higher wages, added Reasey Seng, of SILAKA, Cambodia. Civil societies demanded sincere measures to be taken that reduce inequalities of wealth, power and resources within countries, among countries and between rich and poor

Mass movements groups in the Philippines also staged protests across Metro Manila on 12* November to protest the ASEAN summit and the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump. The protestor expressed their concern that countries like US would further consolidate their imperialist policies aggravating the loss of land of communities in the Philippines and beyond while reinforcing more protection to MNCs in their plunder of land and resources and reaping profits from privatization of essential services.

One need to assess how relevant is 31st ASEAN summit with the economic and political realities in Manipur, which is a focus of India's Act East Policy. ASEAN countries have also been eying India's North East to boost trade and commerce. In fact several Ambassadors of ASEAN countries to India are attending the North East Business summit organized in Imphal from 20th and 21st November 2017 on sidelines of the Sangai Festival.

Many investors from developed countries like Japan, Sweden China and other ASEAN countries are also attending. Expectedly the push will be for more free trade and to open up the economy and resources of Manipur and across India's North East. Manipur's oil, gas, chromium, limestone, serpentines, its forest and Rivers need be open up for expropriation by MNCs.

And indeed, several MoUs for dam building, oil exploration, road building, railways, for climate change financing etc are already signed and further expected as well. The intensification of cor porate expansionism will further complicate and deepen militarization to promote corporate interest, which will entail additional pressure on peoples land and lives. The dimension of conflict scenario is fast changing.

The ASEAN countries provide rich testament of the wide implications of pursuing See trade agreement. The Illocos region in the Philippines is a testimony of how the State and the military provides an enabling environment for these corporate bodies to operate at ease, while sidelining and negating the livelihood and survival question of farmers, fishing communities, indigenous peoples etc, further marginalized and impoverished by policies of imperialism, capitalism and militarism in the Philippines.

The messages emanating from expression of concerns by different communities and civil societies from across ASEAN member states and also during massive protest in Manila in sidelines of 31a ASEAN summit needs a careful assessment, as these messages indicates the persistence of another reality, far seen from the confines, enclaves and the barricades of the world leaders that converged in Manila.

The realities of the indigenous communities of Mindanao, the farming communities and thi fisherfolk of Illocos challenged by neo-liberal policies, of corpos rate plunder of their land and lives in the pretext of free trade and their daily struggle for basic survival, to liberate themselves from the shackles of mounting debt, the exploitation by multinational corporation and the worsening militarism of development need be fully considered.

Similarly, the implications of the increased investment from rich, developed countries like Japan, Korea, EU, France, Australia etc in Manipur and across India's North East in a range of sectors should be thoroughly assessed. The business summit in Manipur should not be another process to further expropriate and plunder the land and resources of Manipur by Indian and foreign corporations and to mete another forms of harassment and human rights violations to its peoples, also trader the cover of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, that facilitate extensive militarization of its land and suppression of its peoples voices, aspirations and assertion for their rights.

India's Act East policy in its mix of both economic and security cooperation's to combat other powerful economies, primarily China, will only lead to rulhless plunder of the land and resources in Manipur and targeting its people as labour and also objects fof Indian state's military repression. Recognizing indigenous peoj pies development priorities and recognizing their livelihood dependence and self-determined rights over their land and resources and to take their free, prior and informed consent is critical before pursuing any unsustainable development processes in the region.

All forms of forced and undemocratic development processes pursued with militarism simply will contravene all provision of international law, development and indigenous peoi pies' rights standards. Manipur need to stand against all forces of globalization and imperialist forces from sweeping away its economy and polity.

* Jiten Yumnam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be contacted at mangangmacha(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on November 27, 2017.

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