Israel-Hamas crisis tears a splintering ASEAN in half

By Richard Javad Heydarian

“The Philippines conveys its deepest sympathies and condolences to those who have lost family members and loved ones in recent attacks,” the Philippine presidential palace said in a statement following the latest round of conflict in the Middle East.

“The Philippines condemns the attacks, especially against civilian populations,” the Southeast Asian nation added, referring to the unprecedented attacks by the militant Hamas organization across Israel which has claimed hundreds of lives including civilians.

In stark contrast to the position of the Philippines, neighboring Malaysia reaffirmed its solidarity with the Palestinian people in response to the Hamas assault on Israel.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim took to social media to lambast the allegedly lopsided global coverage of the latest round of violence, emphasizing the fate of dispossessed Palestinians long confined to occupied territories.

“The confiscation of land and property belonging to the Palestinian people is done relentlessly by the [Israel government],” Anwar said in a post on X referring to the mass displacement of Palestinians after decades of Arab-Israeli conflict. “As a result of this injustice, hundreds of innocent lives were sacrificed,” he added, thus pushing the blame to the side of Israel.

In a strongly-worded statement, the Malaysian foreign ministry portrayed Israel “as the occupier,” which subjected Palestinians to “prolonged illegal occupation, blockade and suffering.” Fellow Muslim-majority Indonesia also reiterated its support for the Palestinian struggle for independence.

Southeast Asia’s largest nation similarly argued that “[t]he root of the conflict, namely the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel, must be resolved, in accordance with the parameters agreed upon by the UN,” referring to various UN Security Council Resolutions endorsing a two-state solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict.

As an emerging global power, however, Indonesia tried to project leadership by emphasizing the need for an “immediate end of violence to avoid further human casualties.” In recent years, the Southeast Asian nation, the world’s third largest democracy, has tried to present as a potential peacemaker in multiple conflict zones, including in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

The other two key Southeast Asian nations of Vietnam and Thailand, for their part, took an even more neutral stance on the escalating conflict, reflecting deep fault lines among core members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on yet another major conflict.

Divergent Interests

In recent years, ASEAN has struggled to overcome deep divisions over multiple crises in its own backyard. On one hand, the regional body has failed to agree on a common strategy to address festering disputes in the South China Sea.

After decades of negotiations, Southeast Asian nations are yet to adopt a consensus position on China’s expanding military footprint across the disputed water. As this year’s ASEAN chairman, Indonesia’s plans for all-ASEAN naval drills were undermined by Beijing-friendly member states while the US-allied Philippines snubbed the event altogether.

Divisions are even more pronounced over the deepening civil war in Myanmar. While Indonesia and Malaysia have favored a more aggressive stance against the military junta in favor of Myanmar’s exiled democratically elected government, Thailand and Cambodia have favored direct engagement with the ruling generals. Time and again, the primacy of domestic politics and national interests have torpedoed ASEAN unity.

As a US treaty ally, the Philippines has historically been more sympathetic to Israel’s position. In fact, the Southeast Asian nation’s vote was instrumental to the founding of the state of Israel. Bilateral economic ties are also robust: In the 1980s, as many as 100,000 Filipinos worked in Israel.

“The government is closely coordinating with the Philippine Embassy in Tel Aviv and the Migrant Workers Office (MWO) in Israel to ensure the safety and welfare of Filipinos affected in the ongoing conflict,” the Philippine Presidential Communications Office (PCO) said in a statement, underscoring the importance of ensuring the safety of close to 29,000 Filipino workers amid the latest round of violence.

The two countries also have 14 major bilateral agreements and have been exploring closer defense ties including the possible purchase of sophisticated surveillance and missile systems amid an ongoing military modernization program in the Philippines.

Although technically a US treaty ally, Thailand has traditionally taken a more neutral stance on polarizing conflicts.

“Thailand calls upon all parties involved to refrain from any actions that would further escalate tensions and joins the international community in condemning any use of violence and indiscriminate attacks. We hope that the situation in Israel will soon return to normalcy,” the Thai foreign ministry said in a statement.

“The Thai government is deeply concerned with the safety of Thai nationals working in Israel who have been affected by such violent incidents,” it added, emphasizing the Southeast Asian nation’s similar concerns about the safety of its citizens working and residing in the Middle Eastern nation.

For its part, communist-ruled Vietnam said that it was “profoundly concerned” and broadly took a stance that is much closer to the position of Eastern powers such as China and Russia, who did not squarely side with Israel.

“We call on relevant parties to exercise restraint, refrain from taking actions that complicate the situation, and soon resume negotiations to resolve disagreements through peaceful means, on the basis of international law and the relevant resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, and ensuring the safety and legitimate interests of civilians,” Vietnam’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Siding with Palestine

Democratically elected governments in Malaysia and Indonesia, where the majority Muslim population is overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, took a radically divergent position.

“Palestinians have been subjected to the prolonged illegal occupation, blockade and suffering, the desecration of al-Aqsa [mosque] as well as the politics of dispossession at the hands of Israel as the occupier,” said the Malaysian Foreign Ministry in a statement over the weekend.

“At this critical time, further loss of life, suffering and destruction should stop and parties must exercise utmost restraint and de-escalate,” it added, discouraging Israel from any disproportionate response that may cause huge suffering among Palestinian civilians in occupied territories.

Malaysia also reiterated the importance of implementing relevant international agreements in order to achieve a just peace, while calling on the UN to take immediate action to de-escalate the conflict.

“The Council should urgently convene an Emergency Session to demand all parties stop the violence as well as respect and protect the lives of innocent civilians,” said the ministry.

As the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia also largely took a sympathetic position vis-à-vis the Palestinian cause.

A few years ago, Indonesian leaders openly criticized America’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital at the expense of a future independent Palestinian state per relevant UN agreements, warning “[t]his can rock global security and stability.”

President Joko Widodo reaffirmed his commitment to the Palestinian territories when Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh visited Jakarta last October 2022. Indonesia built a hospital in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip, in 2011, from money donated by Indonesians.

Anti-Israel sentiments are widespread in the Southeast Asian nation. Earlier this year, FIFA revoked Indonesia’s rights to host the Under-20 World Cup amid protests against Israel’s participation in the tournament.

In a statement, Widodo said that three facets of Indonesia’s support to Palestinians are diplomacy, trade, and humanitarian assistance.

It remains to be seen, though, how the Southeast Asian nation will reconcile its own conflicting interests on the issue, let alone corralling a deeply divided region with radically divergent stance on the latest conflict in the Middle East.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter, formerly X, at @Richeydarian