US-ASEAN summit inspires skepticism, hope

In this June 9, 2012 file photo, President Benigno Aquino III exchanges views with US President Barack Obama during their bilateral meeting at the White House’s Oval Office. The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening the bilateral relationship. Malacañang Photo Bureau/Jay Morales

JAKARTA, Indonesia — It’s a point of pride for many people in Southeast Asia that their respective nations will be represented at a summit with President Barack Obama in the U.S. this week. Beyond that, expectations range from the skeptical to the stratospheric: nothing will change or perhaps Obama can nudge my country in a better direction.

The Southeast Asian officials who will gather at a resort oasis in the California desert on Monday and Tuesday lead nations that span the political spectrum from communist dictatorships in Vietnam and Laos to an oil rich sultanate in Brunei and boisterous democracies in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Some of the countries such as Myanmar are among the poorest in Asia while at the other extreme sits Singapore, one of the world’s wealthiest when measured by per capita GDP. Most, however, are in the middle income ranks: not desperately poor but still far behind nations such as Australia, Japan and the United States and eager for less official corruption, better public services and a higher standard of living. Here’s what people in Southeast Asia are saying about the summit.


Romeo Parce, hardware salesman in Manila, Philippines said the summit is positive for Southeast Asia economically and for the Philippines particularly as it seeks support for its side in territorial spats with China. “The U.S. is the strongest country in the world and if the U.S. can help us, then that is good,” he said. “The issue today is our territorial dispute with China in the Spratly islands. That should be an issue discussed. China is a strong country and it is bullying weaker countries. It is a good thing for us to have the U.S. on our side.”


Hamdani Rasyid, a high school math teacher in Jakarta, Indonesia said the meeting is important for Southeast Asian countries at a time when they want a stronger economic and political relationship with the U.S. to prevent being dominated by China. But he said there are also possible downsides to drawing closer to the U.S. “ASEAN should strengthen itself and find the right distance between China and the United States,” Rasyid said, using the acronym for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.


Sok Sambo, an accountant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia said she hopes the country’s long-serving prime minister Hun Sen will face scrutiny over problems including poverty, restraints on freedom of expression and unfair elections. “The leader never talks about the million people that live under the poverty line. Therefore, it is good if Hun Sen dares to talk about this issue before the U.S. leader and asks help from Obama,” she said. “I also want to hear the U.S. president talking straight away about freedom of expression, the rights of people be respected and democracy to be implemented.”

Svay Sophorn, a taxi driver in Phnom Penh, said Hun Sen, the Cambodian prime minister, should lure more American investment and business because Cambodia has become too close with China. He said the summit should be a wakeup call for some countries. “At the moment the influence of China in this region is too big. This summit is a good chance for the U.S. to build closer relations and limit China’s power.”


Anna Koh, a housewife in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia said the summit will make no difference to the problems facing the country including a months-long financial scandal involving more than $700 million that was channeled into Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal accounts. The attorney-general has decided not to prosecute Najib, saying most of the money was a legal donation from the Saudi royal family. Not many Malaysians are convinced. “We are embroiled in our own troubles. We are so worried about so many things. I really don’t have any confidence that the U.S. can make any difference to our country,” said Koh.

Azrul Khalib, a Malaysian human rights activist, said the summit is a symbolic meeting that’s unlikely to produce a tangible outcome, but the U.S. can send a message to the scandal plagued Malaysian government. “There is a big trust deficit in Malaysia, that’s scaring away investors. Trust is at an all-time low and it is affecting the economy,” he said. “I don’t expect the U.S. to do the dirty work as we have to clean up our own house. But I do hope the U.S. will send a warning and give a wake-up call to our government that it mustn’t be business as usual, that trust and accountability must be restored.”

Ahmad Faizin, a food stall owner in Jakarta, said that the most pressing issue the Indonesian government needs to address with Obama is radicalism and extremism. “We have seen new waves of militant groups emerge and become more of a threat in Indonesia,” Faizin said. “The Indonesian police in particular is managing the threat very well, but my view is that terrorism is largely driven and strongly influenced by the situation in the Middle East.” Seven people died, including four militants, in a suicide and gun attack in central Jakarta in January.


Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Niniek Karmini Indonesia and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur contributed.


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