COVID-19 Highlights How ASEAN is Utterly Pointless

ASEAN, COVID-19, borders

With COVID pandemics going on now for six months, it would have been expected that ASEAN would take some decision to help to the recovery of its zone, for example by offering cross-ASEAN health standards and travel corridors. This has not been the case showing ASEAN total failure as a political entity. 

This sounds like an extraordinary story. Last week, Lao PDR said that its national carrier Lao Airlines would soon resume the route Vientiane-Hanoi, offering two flights a week. The date has however not been announced yet but Lao Airlines already stated that passengers from both Laos and Vietnam would be able to enter the destination without having to stay at a quarantine centre. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, Laos was at least linked daily -if not twice daily-with Hanoi. The decision is a bilateral one, taken by both the Laotian and Vietnamese government. From the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the entity supposedly in charge of coordinating a common economic, cultural, social and development policy, no word and no act…

At the start of the pandemics in early March, all the academics and experts of tourism in Southeast Asia predicted that domestic tourism would first recovery rapidly followed by regional tourism. Last would be overseas tourism. Six months later, while domestic tourism re-started in rather small volumes, there is almost no sign of an upturn in regional travel movements in the region. Malaysia and Singapore agreed for example last week that they would resume border travel activities. But it will be limited to very specific groups.

Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia or Vietnam have so far not make a single move to at least open up their borders to other ASEAN member countries where the number of coronavirus cases remain limited or inexistant. A special case is Cambodia which is officially open again to international travellers, assorted however with so many financial constraints that it will probably deter most visitors- particularly from ASEAN. Once more, ASEAN deafening silence on a coordinated border reopening with ASEAN defined health standards is chocking.

The result is the following. Each ASEAN country seems to contain well the pandemics (Indonesia and the Philippines excepted). On July 22, the association officially recorded 4,487 new infections – including 4,106 in both Indonesia and the Philippines- and 145 deaths all in the two mentioned countries. In total, COVID cases since the start of the pandemics at the end of February reached 230,363. Interestingly, there is in parallel 1.31 million people affected in ASEAN by a pandemics of dengue over the last 12 months. Borders still remained open until the COVID appeared.

Meanwhile, ASEAN has not been able to convince that reopening borders among its members would help softening the terrible economic impact of the pandemics. Tourism represents for most ASEAN countries between 7% and 20% of all employment, being often the only job perspective for many people. Precipitating millions of Southeast Asians into poverty is a curious choice…In Thailand for example, between seven and eight million people live from tourism.

ASEAN solidarity seems also an abstract concept. Cambodia’s decision to ask a US$ 3,000 deposit to any visitor  without exempting ASEAN travellers show how little care is giving to the association. Same can be said about the ban on international flights in Thailand and Vietnam. By acting that way, Thailand and Vietnam de facto closed down Mekong busiest international gateways as the ban was also extended to passengers in transfer. If Myanmar or Laos dream to reopen their borders, they will have to beg first Thai and Vietnamese for their benevolence…

ASEAN inaudible voice comes from the fact that each member country reaffirms its commitment not to interfere in domestic affairs of its neighbours. As COVID-19 is perceived by some ASEAN countries as a good mean to reinforce controls on people, the ASEAN idea of being a strong community turns into an increasingly distant dream.