May 15, 2023
JAKARTA – With regional security as among the overarching themes of the 42nd ASEAN Summit, Southeast Asian leaders throughout last week cranked up cooperation to combat transnational crimes, which present a threat to peace, stability and prosperity in the region and could impede the process to build ASEAN’s community.
The region, which in recent years has seen its security jeopardized by external factors like the geopolitical rivalry between giants the United States and China, has also grappled with internal threats including trafficking in persons, transnational drug transactions, money laundering and terrorism.
Some of these threats, especially human trafficking, have also been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a period whereby economic uncertainty and increased unemployment became key drivers in pushing increased transnational crimes.
In 2022 alone, the Foreign Ministry recorded over 600 repatriation cases of citizens falling victim to a human trafficking scheme in Cambodia, whereby workers were taken hostage and forced to perform online scams to fulfill a certain quota. This scheme initially promises victims administrative or service jobs with a promise of a USD salary and is becoming widely popular in Southeast Asia.
And despite being primarily an economic association, experts have previously noted the association’s political and security issues were tightly interconnected with its economy, a point that made itself acutely known to the group’s leaders during the Labuan Bajo assembly last week in East Nusa Tenggara.
Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD, who led last week’s ASEAN Political Security Community Council, said a failure to address these problems could render ASEAN irrelevant, and transnational crimes “not only present a threat to peace, stability and prosperity in the region, but also impede our community-building process”.
Two declarations were adopted throughout last week, one to address human trafficking and another to address the safety of migrant workers during emergencies.
The declaration, which acknowledged technology abuse has aggravated human trafficking cases, emphasized a “cohesive and immediate ASEAN response” must be developed by strengthening cooperation and coordination with all its member states. This includes enhancing border management and the capacity of law enforcement agencies to investigate, collect data and exchange information, on top of conducting research and ASEAN policy dialogues.
Each member state pledged to improve its own domestic mechanisms to prevent the increasingly popular crime.
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The International Labor Organization’s (ILO) 2019 data showed at least 5.1 million employed migrants in ASEAN, with Malaysia and Thailand among the top employers and Indonesia and the Philippines holding the largest diaspora populations. Even with various migrant laws across ASEAN nations, abuse cases are rife among the migrant population.
Meanwhile, Mahfud put a spotlight on the acceleration of the ASEAN Extradition Treaty, a pact that seeks to provide a clear process of surrendering an individual wanted for a crime from a specific requesting country.
Indonesia has signed bilateral extradition treaties with countries including Singapore and Malaysia, which were strategic pacts to target fleeing criminals, especially corruptors.
“[An ASEAN extradition treaty] would help prevent our region from becoming a safe haven for criminals as well as fortify ASEAN’s position as a rule-based community,” Mahfud said.
Analysts noted addressing transnational crimes was necessary for the association’s community building, and economic stability relies heavily upon a stable and safe region.
“Transnational crimes, whether people or gun smuggling, scamming, migration issues or terrorism, would clearly weaken ASEAN’s security. So, it has no choice but to deal with that. Especially with the evolution of technology, crimes have gotten more advanced,” said Dewi Fortuna Anwar from the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN).
Yet, others have described these undertakings as “low-hanging fruits”, pointing to the much bigger security threat casting a heavy pall on the region: the toxic tension stemming from Washington and Beijing’s rivalry.
Recent years have seen the Asia-Pacific region as among the primary theaters where the sharp competition between the two superpowers is unfolding in real-time, pushing countries to perform a precarious balancing act experts consider to have been only partly successful.
With increased foreign military presence in the region, territorial disputes involving the association’s members and lack of a clear ASEAN mechanism to respond in time during emergencies, analysts have criticized the group’s security focus, which hast mostly addressed transnational crimes as grabs for quick wins, while ignoring the real existential threat.
“I’m not saying these issues [of transnational crimes] are not important. They are. But these are low-hanging fruits, and ASEAN has a much bigger assignment: to ensure its mechanisms are up-to-date with recent developments,” said analyst Lina Alexandra of Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “The rivalry between the US and China is getting toxic. How is it going to respond?”