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Jakarta Post
The Jakarta Post
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Where is ASEAN cultural diplomacy?

  • Verdinand Robertua

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Fri, June 14, 2013 | 09:12 am

With a population of over 500 million people, Southeast Asia is blessed with diverse ethnicities, languages, food and

Unfortunately, this richness in culture and art has never been explored in order to introduce and promote ASEAN integration as leaders of the region have opted to focus on security, political and economic issues.

Cultural activities and cooperation among ASEAN members are integral parts of the ASEAN road map, but few events have been organized to realize this cultural diplomacy.

Why do we need cultural diplomacy? First, people-to-people diplomacy involves direct communication among individuals and groups.

Thus, there are exchanges of views and perspectives. All members are given equal chances and opportunities to present their cultures in as interesting a way as possible in order to lure audiences'€™ interest.

In addition, cultural presentations are flexible and dynamic allowing certain adjustments of the original cultures.

Second, cultural diplomacy can attract large audiences. In this regard, there are two forms of cultural diplomacy, namely popular culture and high culture.

The latter comprises art, literature and education designed for specific groups while popular culture, such as music and films, is aimed at larger more general groups.

Youths are the main consumers of popular culture. They are looking for alternative fresh ways to deal with problems and cultural diplomacy seems to fit in with their mission, similarly with sporting diplomacy.

The last is the presence of trust between different societies. In a forum of culture, each group will present their values, beliefs, norms and ideologies. Cultural events are the place for celebrating difference.

Participants are encouraged to respect different values and norms. Freedom of expression gives room for creating friendships and trust between them. ASEAN has designed a roadmap to promote cultural diplomacy.

There are three pillars of ASEAN integration, namely: political-security, economic and sociocultural.

In the sociocultural pillar, strategies for promoting cultural heritage, cultural creativity and industry are elaborated in detail.

In the ASEAN Roadmap 2009'€“ 2015, some of the assignments related to cultural heritage are the establishment of ASEAN Cultural Center in each ASEAN member state, promotion of cultural products and the development of regional mechanisms to protect ASEAN cultural heritage. Unfortunately, few of them have been implemented.

The ASEAN Economic Community will fully take effect in 2015. Despite the optimism among officials, grassroots'€™ understanding of ASEAN remains weak.

'€œWe-feeling'€ and sense of belonging among the citizens of ASEAN'€™s member states is questionable as most of the decisions in ASEAN originate from officials through a top-down approach.

The reaction of Indonesia and Malaysia to the Ambalat border issue and the Preah Vihear Temple conflict between Thailand and Cambodia in 2011 demonstrated the absence of an '€œASEAN spirit'€.

The surprising implementation of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement is another example of the lack of citizen participation. Currently the South China Sea is a pressing issue that tests ASEAN'€™s unity.

There are few media outlets or instruments for citizens to express their opinions about ASEAN but ASEAN member states rarely encourage citizen participation.

The European Union (EU) allocates millions of euro to provide scholarships and study visits for students across Europe to European institutions in Brussels. The students can watch the EU'€™s real plenary sessions and meet their parliament members and EU officials.

Building ASEAN sociocultural communities is done best through regional forums. Each ASEAN country has its uniqueness and characteristics, and learning experiences from all ASEAN member countries are thus crucial.

Evidence of ASEAN'€™s ethnic and cultural richness is the fact that Thailand has 74 language groups, Vietnam has 107 and Indonesia has 719. ASEAN is also home to many beliefs: Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, animism and traditional beliefs.

The problems of radicalism and ethnocentric views have emerged in some ASEAN countries. A survey by Kompas (May 18) daily newspaper showed that local sentiment in Indonesia arises vis-a-vis nationalism.

In many regional elections in Indonesia, race and ethnicity hold the key. Even in the recent Malaysian election, the rights of minority groups became a crucial issue. Religious radicalism and terrorism are regional threats.

Intercultural dialogue is the right solution. Becoming aware of cultural and linguistic differences allows societies to better understand and value difference.

Lack of understanding and respect for cultural diversity can often lead to conflict. ASEAN needs to facilitate this need through festivals, concerts and student exchanges.

Economic, political and security cooperation will always be important issues but cultural diplomacy has been neglected for a long time. However, ASEAN is blessed with a diversity of cultures.

It is time for ASEAN to take this opportunity to promote peace, intercultural understanding and the ASEAN community. As the United States senator William Fulbright said, '€œHaving people understand your thought is much greater security than another submarine'€.

The writer is a lecturer in international relations at the Christian University of Indonesia (UKI) and researcher at UKI'€™s Center for Security and Foreign Affairs (CESFAS).