Bromances, Selfies, and Elephants: The Hits and Misses of ASEAN 2017

What went down at last week's ASEAN Summit?

The ASEAN lanes are gone. No more road entrapments for those with underdeveloped bladders (and an even more underdeveloped sense of civic sense). Time for a rundown of the ASEAN’s hits and misses: 

Hit: Bromance in the air
The relationship status between two long time allies, the Philippines and the US was for awhile—and we’re being charitable here—ambiguous. But it is now as clear that the relationship status needle has moved from “it’s complicated” to “in a bromance”.

And all it took was a world leader with carrot hair that was as fiery as his temperament. In Donald Trump, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte found his match.

As many had correctly anticipated, the two fiery leaders hit it off. It wasn’t really surprising considering their other similarities: their age, their choice of life partners who can always be counted on to smile for the camera, and their similar attitudes toward the press and human rights. 

ASEAN gala dinners saw Duterte crooning Filipino love song, “Ikaw” to Trump, and Trump effusively reciprocating with a litany of superlatives to describe, well, the country’s weather.

Cumbersome handshakes and serenades aside, the bilateral talks between the two leaders eked out agreements on counter terrorism and trade deals. Clearly, the relationship between the US and the Philippines is again mutually warm.

“Because Trump is a buffoon, it may actually be Duterte saying, 'He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s my son of a bitch!' says military historian and security expert Jose Antonio Custodio about the “shipping” of these two heads of state.


One little question remained unclear: Did they or didn’t they discuss human rights? A White House statement said they did. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said they didn’t. 


Miss: The Elephant in the Room
If human rights was the elephant in the room of this ASEAN Summit, the number of elephants in the room could have filled up an entire zoo. 

Human rights activists have long been sending out warnings about the human rights crises across south east Asia. There is the persecution and displacement of about 1 million Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar; the crackdown on free press and opposition in Cambodia; and in the Philippines, the war on drugs that has left thousands dead and which Indonesia seems to want to copy

But none of these issues were discussed collectively by the 10-member state coalition. Some leaders spoke up, like United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Human rights were brought up like innuendos and appeared to be timid blind item in a gossip page in the face of silence of the world leaders. In the face of human rights calamities across the region, this just didn’t cut it for human rights watchdogs: “Behind-closed-doors ‘quiet diplomacy’ with Duterte on human rights only gives him and his craven spin doctors the opportunity after-the-fact to twist the substance of such discussions or deny them altogether,” says Phelim Kine, deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

On the other hand, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said that the Philippines did a good job in chairing this year's ASEAN. “I would give the country a 9.5. The logistics were great, the performances were great, and the discussions were substantive.”  

Recommended Videos

Roque added that all major topics were all discussed: West Philippine Sea, North Korea and violent extremism. Discussions on the West Philippine Sea were behind closed doors, and so Roque says he was not at liberty to speak about it publicly. Also: "The drug war was rightfully not discussed because it is a domestic issue," says Roque.


Miss: The West Philippine Sea—elephant, and missed opportunity
In the lead up to the ASEAN Summit, the Armed Forces had started building structures on one of the sandbars near our island. The structure was meant to provide shelter for Filipino fishermen and protect them from winds and waves that could quickly turn vicious.

This upset Beijng and prompted Duterte to utter words that you would never want  to hear from your favorite lover: Let’s pull out

On the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Da Nang in Vietnam, President Duterte and Chinese leader Xi Jinping talked and agreed to that the issue of the West Philippine Sea “is better left untouched.” Former Philippine foreign secretary Roberto Romulo called the lack of discussion on the Hague tribunal decision "extremely disappointing."

The light at the end of the tunnel would have been working on crafting a Code of Conduct (COC) to prevent escalation of disputes but the ASEAN Chairman’s statement but the Chairman’s statement only said it “looked forward to the announcement of the start of substantive negotiations on the COC with China…”

“The (talks about a) code of conduct has been there since 1992. Unless China withdraws from disputed waters and pulling out their armada, the code of conduct will be nothing but a piece of paper,” said Teddy Casiño, representative of Bayan (New Patriotic Alliance), a left-wing coalition of labor and peasant groups.



Hit: Migrant Worker Protection Act
The Philippine government hyped the signing of a Migrant Worker Protection Act that established safeguards against violence and sexual harassment in the workplace as well as fair treatment and recruitment.

Migrant rights group Migrante called out the agreement for its silence on the issue of an undocumented migrant workers who live and work under the radar because they have no papers–and therefore, no legal protections.

Migrante also urged ASEAN to create a body that will oversee violations and concerns of the migrant workers, whether as a consultative body or a tribunal

Hit: Justin Trudeau

Now, here is a world leader that knows how to endear himself to the Filipino public and the hundreds of thousands of  Filipinos who have migrated to Canada.

There was the visit to Jollibee, replete with the pictures with the crew and mascot and a visit to the Likhaan Women’s Health Clinic in Manila. Only Trudeau could rival Duterte’s special assistant Bong Go when it comes to selfies.


It wasn’t just for photo ops: Trudeau literally put his money where his smile was when he announced that Canada would be investing $17.8 million for a five-year implementation of a Sexual Health and Empowerment Project by Oxfam in the Philippines. Trudeau also said that Canada was concerned with the climbing death toll of the drug war (a remark that the president called "a personal and official insult").

In the meantime, environmentalists weren’t going to let Trudeau off the hook that easily, however, and demanded that he talk dirty to them and take back the trash that Canada illegally dumped in the Philippines in 2013.

Hit & Miss: The street protests
The real action was out on the streets, where more than 9,000 people came out from all over the country, hell-bent on delivering their promise to hound Trump’s visit to the Philippines with a series of protests.

Many were hoarse from chanting “Ban Trump” and calling him a “fascist imperialist leader," and over a hundred protesters reportedly suffered from minor injuries when riot police used water cannons to bar them from entering the US embassy and the ASEAN summit venue. Michael Pineda, a 27-year-old farmer from Mindanao, had a bandage on his head covering the four stitches he needed when a police truncheon hit him. 

Protestors were students, laborers, indigenous people, Muslim organizations and LGBT groups demanding attention for a wide range of mostly domestic issues that included unjust labor practices, extra judicial killings, human rights and lack of social protection for Filipinos. 


Outsiders were impressed by the protests that displayed not only vigor but creativity. American TV host Jimmy Kimmel was so wowed by the Trump effigy with a four-arm swastika that he gave it some nationwide love on his show. "Comparatively, our protests here suck. I mean, where did they get that giant Trump fidget spinner? That's amazing!" Kimmel said about the protest art that was created by Ugat Lahi.


Country Agreements Made:
The ASEAN is the only economic coalition of its kind outside the European Union. If you put together the GDP and economic productivity of the 10-member states that make up the ASEAN, it would be among the top 10 global economies. This explains the presence of other countries outside the ASEAN regional community. Check out the deals that were committed, explored and signed during the summit on this link.


View More Articles About:
More Videos You Can Watch
About The Author
Ana P. Santos
An independent journalist based in Manila, Philippines. Her work focuses mainly on gender issues, HIV/AIDS and reproductive health.
View Other Articles From Ana Santos
Latest Feed
Load More Articles
Connect With Us