Monday, August 21, 2017

PNG deserves ASEAN membership

And now for something completely different.So different, in fact, that many people may wonder if Southeast Asia has suddenly expanded since they last looked at a map.

For this week’s focus is Papua New Guinea, which is actually no farther away from Jakarta, headquarters of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, than northern Myanmar.PNG, as it is known, forms half of the huge island of New Guinea, with Indonesia’s Papua province comprising the other half.Geographically, it is clearly part of the region. And frankly, it should also be politically and economically.That was acknowledged when Papua New Guinea was given observer status in ASEAN back in 1976.Since then, it has languished in a 35-year-long purgatory awaiting permission to become a full member.As I discovered during a recent two-week swing through PNG, the reasons for its continued exclusion are complex and unsavoury.The principle one is racism. The people of Papua New Guinea are black, very black.And despite a half-hearted tolerance of the region’s small Indian community, most Southeast Asians do not like black people.But, hush, hush, do not say that. For the denials will be shrill and people will point to a black minister in Singapore or a black business tycoon in Malaysia.They are the exceptions, however, and the truth is closer to the situation in the United States half a century ago.African-Americans found the door had been opened, but when they applied for a job or sought a nice apartment, they were often rejected.The reasons were always valid on paper: You are not educated or economically mature enough for us just yet.So it is with Papua New Guinea, and that is bad enough in itself, but what is worse is that PNG is actually more qualified than several existing members of ASEAN.Unlike the regimes in Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, it steadfastly hews to the democratic principles laid down in the group’s charter.Resource-rich and English-speaking, it also has a free press and an independent judiciary before which its current prime minister recently appeared.During my short visit there, I secured interviews with two other former prime ministers, one state governor and the head of a major mining operation in the central highlands.In contrast, during my two years in Hanoi as bureau chief for the Straits Times of Singapore – a country with close ties to Vietnam – I got precisely zero ministerial interviews.Yet media-repressive, judicially compromised, communist Vietnam was welcomed into ASEAN.

When I asked former PNG Prime Minister Julius Chan about the discrepancy, he rolled his eyes and said he had almost given up hope of ever getting in ASEAN.Sharing this view, another former PM, Rabbie Namaliu, told me it was even a moot point whether joining would benefit PNG now.Both agreed that there are more paramount domestic issues, notably whether outlying provinces should be allowed to secede.One of them, Bourgainville, will hold a referendum on independence in 2015 and both Chan and Namaliu believe the vote is likely to be in favour of separation.Chan’s own province of New Ireland would like to follow suit – with his vigorous support.Pretty soon, if ASEAN is not careful, it may have to put multiple new membership requests into its purgatorial waiting room.These additional exclusions, like that of East Timor, will not help regional stability, nor help curb the continued hegemonic encroachment of China.

What ASEAN fears to welcome, Beijing happily embraces. Its burgeoning investments in PNG include a multimillion-dollar stake in a nickel mine and a US $117-million soft-loan for the fishery industry.Commerce has also soared and China is now PNG’s second largest trading partner after Australia.ASEAN needs to smarten up and get in on the act by admitting Papua New Guinea asap.