South-East Asia is one of the most diverse regions in the world, and because of its location between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, it also has major geopolitical significance. Not only does its geography make the region politically important, but because of its access to vital passages such as the Strait of Malacca, it is also economically important.
The region’s economic, political, and geographic importance also plays a role when it comes to several related issues, including the South China Sea. As a regional organization, the Association of South-East Asia Nations (ASEAN) has an important voice on these matters. ASEAN is regarded as one of the most successful regional organizations in the world, and its role on key topics in the region has to be critically assessed.
The military coup in Myanmar (Burma) on 1 February 2021 was an alarming situation for the region. The military has been committing a series of atrocities and crimes against humanity inside the country, and ASEAN has to tackle this issue. However, it has not been able to produce a significant result on the issue of Myanmar as there are many restrictions, including the organization’s key principle of non-interference. By conducting a cooperative, comparative study of the issue of Cambodia during the Third Indochina War, this paper will try to analyze the best possible options for ASEAN concerning the issue of Myanmar.
The Cambodian conflict might be quite different from what is happening in Myanmar today, but it would be compelling to better understand ASEAN’s role in that conflict as it is one of the most difficult issues the organization has had to face since it was established 1967. It can also provide greater insight into how ASEAN approaches regional issues. When discussing the Cambodian conflict, most people focus on the role of the United Nations (UN). Although the UN played an important role in the conflict, ASEAN and the South-East Asia countries were also key players.
This study will try to flesh out ASEAN’s role during the conflict in Cambodia and investigate the progress made thanks to ASEAN-initiated mechanisms relating to the crisis in Myanmar. Another objective of this paper is to find the best possible option for ASEAN by drawing on lessons learned from the Cambodian conflict.
To fulfill the objectives above, this study will seek to answer how ASEAN became involved in the Cambodian conflict and what its role was, what ASEAN’s current progress is with regard to the issue of Myanmar, which lessons should be learned from the Cambodian conflict, and how ASEAN should reconsider its role regarding the situation in Myanmar today.
The study will focus mainly on qualitative methods by using historical documents and academic papers to examine the role of ASEAN in the Cambodian conflict, as well as news articles and documents that examine the progress ASEAN has made with respect to the Myanmar issue. In addition to these historical documents, research papers, and news articles about the events, this study will also show how other studies have perceived ASEAN’s role. Having a more precise understanding of ASEAN could give a more specific analysis of its role in the Cambodian conflict and during and after the military coup in Myanmar in 2021.
This paper is divided into five parts. The first part will describe how ASEAN developed into a regional organization in South-East Asia. In the second part, the regional order and world order will be discussed as they relate to ASEAN. The third part will examine the conflict in Cambodia, how ASEAN reacted to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, and the organization’s effectiveness during the Cambodian conflict. The fourth part will analyze the current progress of ASEAN-led mechanisms with regard to the Myanmar issue and responses by individual ASEAN member countries (e.g., Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia). The last part will evaluate the role that ASEAN (has) played during the Cambodian and Myanmar conflicts, compare it with the ASEAN-led mechanisms pertaining to these issues, and examine which lessons ASEAN should learn from the Cambodian conflict and apply to the current situation in Myanmar.
The emergence of ASEAN as a regional organization in South-East Asia
ASEAN’s development and emergence as a regional organization in the South-East Asian region will also need to be explored. Although ASEAN is currently the most prominent regional organization, it is not the only one to emerge in the region. Before discussing the role of ASEAN in particular conflicts, it is important to look back at the organizations that preceded it.
It could be said that regional organizations emerged in the South-East Asia region after the Second World War. In 1954, Thailand and the Philippines signed the South-East Asia Collective Defense Treaty, which would later be known as the Manila Pact. Following the ratification of the treaty, the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was created. The SEATO was focused more on collective defense and security than on being a regional organization (Murfett 2012), and some countries in the region, including Malaysia and Singapore, were not part of the SEATO at the time.
The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) had a major influence on the South-East Asia region (Acharya 2021). The Colombo meeting in April 1954 in Sri Lanka and the Bandung Conference in April 1955 in Indonesia paved the way for the NAM.
In 1959, Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman proposed the establishment of the South-East Asia Friendship and Economic Treaty (SEAFT), although that process would ultimately be unsuccessful (Weatherbee 2019). Following the failure of establishing the SEAFT, the Association of South-East Asia (ASA) was founded in June 1961 in Bangkok by Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines. However, the ASA did not deliver any significant results. In July 1963, the Manila Accord was signed by Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia with the intention to establish MAPHILINDO.
On 8 August 1967, the Bangkok Declaration (ASEAN 1967) was adopted by Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore and resulted in the creation of ASEAN. Unlike its predecessors, ASEAN could make significant progress as a regional organization thanks to the creation of the Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFA), the signing of the Treaty of Amenity and Cooperation (TAC), and the Bali Concords.
Despite many challenges and criticisms, ASEAN has undeniably maintained its status as a regional organization for over five decades and become one of the most successful regional organizations in the world. With more than 50 years of experience as a regional organization, the role of ASEAN will need to be reviewed through the prism of previous studies on ASEAN before analyzing its role in the Cambodian conflict during the Third Indochina War and the military coup in Myanmar in 2021.
Regional order and the limitations of ASEAN
Before considering the role of ASEAN on two issues that are critical to the South-East Asia region (i.e., the Cambodian conflict during the Third Indochina War and the military coup in Myanmar in 2021), ASEAN’s role in the region and the changing world order also needs to be examined.
ASEAN is facing a different kind of world order than the one in place at the time it was formed in 1967 (Natalegawa 2018). Because of the changing world order and dynamics of power, the organization has had to redefine its role in the region. When ASEAN was established in 1967, it was the era of the Cold War, and there was a rivalry between the communist world led by the Soviet Union and the liberal world led by the United States. Today, there is a different world order, with the rivalry between the People’s Republic of China and the United States taking center stage. These changes in the world order and power dynamics are central to a consideration of the regional issues.
The norms that defined the role of ASEAN in the region came from a mix of sources that included the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), and it could be said that the establishment of ASEAN was the product of a desire by its five original members to create a mechanism to prevent war and manage conflict (Acharya 2021). The need for such a mechanism of war prevention and conflict management was highlighted by the fact that ASEAN’s predecessors had struggled to mitigate intra-regional mistrust and hostility (Acharya 2009).
When considering the issues in the region, the diversity of the region is a very important factor for ASEAN. As one of the most diverse regions in the world, it is no wonder that many factors need to be considered for ASEAN when resolving or becoming involved in regional issues, and these considerations are also important with respect to the limitations on ASEAN’s ability to tackle regional issues (Mahbubani and Sng 2019).
One consideration with regard to the role of ASEAN in the region is that no single country in South-East Asia can be considered the great power of the world. While none of the members of ASEAN are among the great powers of the world, the organization needs to pay attention to the regional order when tackling regional issues (Acharya 2021).
ASEAN has limitations with regard to regional issues. This also exposes ASEAN to criticism for its role in regional issues, especially when they relate to politics. Because of the region’s diversity, ASEAN has to consider different approaches when preparing to address regional issues.
ASEAN’s role in the Cambodian conflict
In December 1978, when Cambodia was under the control of the Pol Pot regime and the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam invaded the country, creating one of the biggest challenges for ASEAN since its founding in 1967. Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia was also part of the Third Indochina War and could be viewed as an issue liable to threaten regional stability. After the invasion, Vietnam installed a new government led by Heng Samrin. Former Khmer Rouge members, like Hun Sen, were also included in the government (Gottesman 2003). The country was renamed the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), and there were a series of ongoing conflicts with the Khmer Rouge. For ASEAN, it was a serious threat to regional stability, and the organization had to offer a strong voice to condemn the conflict.
In January 1979, a special meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers was held in Bangkok. In a statement, they mentioned that ASEAN saw this conflict as an issue for regional stability and that they had decided to raise their voices against the ongoing Cambodian conflict (ASEAN 1979). In addition, ASEAN urged the United Nations Security Council to act on the Cambodian conflict. In March 1979, ASEAN presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council. In November 1979, the resolution would be adopted. At the 35th session of the UN General Assembly in October 1980, ASEAN sponsored UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/35/6 calling for international action to resolve the conflict in Cambodia.
In March 1980, the meeting between the ASEAN member states’ foreign ministers and their counterparts from the European Community countries was held in Kuala Lumpur, and the issue of Cambodia was also mentioned in the statement of that Second ASEAN–EEC Ministerial Meeting (ASEAN 1980).
In February 1985, there was a special ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Bangkok. The participants in that meeting issued a strong statement on the Kampuchea (Cambodia) issue. Subsequently, in March 1986, an eight-point peace proposal for resolving the Kampuchean (Cambodian) conflict was announced (Caballero-Anthony, 2005: 83–112).
In July 1988, an informal meeting known as the Jakarta Informal Meeting (JIM I) was held in the Indonesian capital (Pou, et al. 2021.). The Cambodian factions involved in the conflict also attended the JIM I meetings to discuss the crisis. The following points were agreed to at that meeting:
JIM II was established in February 1989, which led to the Paris Conference on Cambodia (PICC) from July to August 1989, where Indonesia joined France as co-chair. At that PICC, all the Cambodian factions, the six ASEAN countries, and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P5) were in attendance, along with Vietnam, Laos, Australia, Canada, and India, among others.
The turning point in the Cambodian conflict came in 1991, when the P5 decided to take over the leadership role that ASEAN had had with regard to the Cambodian conflict (Caballero-Anthony, 2005: 83–112). In October 1991, the Agreement on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodian Conflict was signed with the Cambodian factions and the international participants. This settlement paved the way for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). In November 1991, a UN Advanced Mission to Cambodia (UNAMIC) was sent to Cambodia (Sullivan 2016). The UNTAC was given full authority to govern Cambodia from March 1992 to September 1993. These events were followed by a general election in May 1993.
From the perspective of the ASEAN member countries, it was obvious that the ASEAN member countries had considered the Cambodian conflict a regional issue. ASEAN-initiated actions included resolutions at the UN General Assembly. Until the leadership role was handed over to the UN, ASEAN member countries played both individual and joint roles in seeking to resolve the Cambodian conflict.
Eleven years after it was established, ASEAN tackled the Cambodian conflict as a regional issue. Given the context of the Cold War, ASEAN was paying special attention to the issue as it could have spilled over into the South-East Asia region, especially the ASEAN member countries. The Khmer Rouge and refugees from Cambodia were also major problems for South-East Asia. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia escalated the existing instability in Cambodia and brought a more intense threat to the South-East Asia region.
Although the United States and China were also on the side of ASEAN in standing against the Vietnamese invasion, ASEAN as an organization could not make significant progress beyond issuing statements and supporting the resolutions at the United Nations. It was obvious that ASEAN had to work together with other international organizations like the UN. Although ASEAN could not make a significant impact as an organization, the individual actions of the members of ASEAN countries such as Indonesia played a crucial role in the Cambodian conflict. The JIMs are one example of that.
Although ASEAN is an important organization in the region, the Cambodian conflict reflected the limitations of ASEAN and its reluctance to become deeply involved in regional affairs. The impact of those limitations during the military coup in Myanmar in 2021 also need to be considered.
ASEAN’s role in the Myanmar conflict
Both ASEAN’s and the individual member countries’ responses to the current crisis in Myanmar should be discussed. When the military coup happened on 1 February 2021, the member states had a variety of responses. Some countries mentioned their concern about the issue, while others regarded it as an internal conflict. Most of the countries were too cautious to comment on the coup at all. Malaysia was one of the first countries to raise their voice in protest, with the Malaysian Foreign Ministry making an announcement on 1 February (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Malaysia 2021). On 2 February, the ASEAN Chairman also issued a statement on the situation in Myanmar (ASEAN 2021d).
A few days after ASEAN’s statement, Indonesia and Malaysia pushed the organization on the Myanmar issue. On 5 February, the leaders of the two countries discussed the situation in Myanmar. After the meeting, they asked Brunei, which chaired the organization at the time, to initiate a special meeting on Myanmar. In his meeting with the Indonesian President, the Malaysian Prime Minister mentioned the coup was “one step backward in the process of democracy in that country” (Reuters 2021).
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi visited Brunei on February 17 and Singapore on February 18 to discuss the crisis in Myanmar. In the meeting in Brunei, she mentioned that “Many countries, including Indonesia, have raised concerns. Raising concerns is one thing, but the question is: What can Indonesia and ASEAN do to help Myanmar get out of this delicate situation?” (Strangio 2021) Indonesia also spoke to the military side and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), which had been formed by the elected parliamentary representatives of Myanmar.
On 2 March, an Informal ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (IAMM) was held and a statement issued by ASEAN (ASEAN 2021c). On 24 April, there was a special meeting by the ASEAN member countries, where the following “Five-Point Consensus” was drawn up (ASEAN 2021b). This consensus became the main pathway for the international community on the issue of Myanmar:
After the meeting, Indonesian President Joko Widodo issued made a press statement about the situation and the decision of the ASEAN consensus on Myanmar (Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia in Hanoi 2021). It was also mentioned that the Indonesian President had spoken on the phone to Brunei so that this special meeting could happen, and it also stated that Indonesia was among the leading ASEAN countries having a strong voice on the Myanmar issue.
Progress on the Five-Point Consensus was relatively slow. Four months later, in August 2021, Brunei’s second minister for foreign affairs, Erywan Yusof, was appointed ASEAN Special Envoy to Myanmar. But in this capacity he did not make significant progress as the Myanmar military did not cooperate with ASEAN’s efforts. Myanmar’s military rejected the ASEAN Special Envoy’s request to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi (Al Jazeera 2021).
The Myanmar military’s lack of cooperation created barriers to progress by ASEAN. After the Emergency ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in October 2021, only the non-political representative was allowed the attend the ASEAN summit.
Although it was stated that non-political representatives could attend the ASEAN summit, even the non-political representative did not attend the meeting, and the ASEAN summit had to go on without the representative from Myanmar. In the Chairman’s statement of the 38th and 39th ASEAN summit, Myanmar was mentioned as one of the regional issues (ASEAN 2021a). Although ASEAN always stated its concern about the Myanmar issue, there has been little progress on ASEAN action in this respect.
Regarding ASEAN’s progress on the Myanmar issue before the ASEAN summit, only two actions were apparent: It had appointed a special envoy, and no political representatives from Myanmar (neither the Myanmar military nor the opposition sides) were allowed to attend the ASEAN summit.
More than 50 years after ASEAN was established, the issue of Myanmar has become the benchmark for considering ASEAN’s ability to handle regional issues. And yet, ASEAN still fails to deliver significant results with regard to the issue of Myanmar beyond prohibiting the Myanmar military from attending the ASEAN summit. Although ASEAN drafted a Five-Point Consensus on the Myanmar issue, the plan did not produce any breakthroughs and has failed to stop Myanmar’s military from committing further atrocities.
The issue of Myanmar also reflects ASEAN’s limitations when it comes to regional conflicts. Even though the organization had made statements relating to the Myanmar issue, it was unable to take a strong stand. When Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, which had held the chairmanship of ASEAN since January, visited Myanmar, he faced criticism that his visit would legitimize the military (ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights 2022), which was committing atrocities, although he rejected the accusation (Bala 2022).
While the issue of Myanmar has been the benchmark for considering ASEAN’s ability to resolve regional issues, ASEAN has not made any clear progress. The lack of significant progress affects the image of ASEAN, which is why the organization should find alternative options for the Myanmar issue.
The Cambodian conflict, which happened during the Third Indochina War, is one of the most critical regional issues ASEAN has had to handle. It was an especially alarming situation for the ASEAN member countries, which were very wary of the threat of communism during the Cold War. In the context of the military coup in Myanmar in 2021, the Cambodian conflict has been discussed here to assess the role of ASEAN at the time and help identify the best possible outcome for the current crisis.
There are differences between the two conflicts. First, there is the global world order. The Cambodian conflict happened during the Third Indochina War, when the world was vigilant about possible communist influence, and ASEAN was viewed as an anti-communist organization. Moreover, during the Cold War, one conflict in the region could have an impact on the other countries in the region, which is why the ASEAN member countries were particularly concerned about the conflict.
Second, there was the China factor. During the Cambodian conflict, there was tension between China and Vietnam, which led ASEAN and China to take a stand against Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia. By contrast, there are Chinese economic and strategic interests in Myanmar, which makes it difficult for China to take a firm stand on the conflict today. This might also affect how ASEAN acts on the issue of Myanmar.
Third, there are economic ties. During the Cambodian conflict, there were no real economic ties between Cambodia, Vietnam, and the five ASEAN countries. When it comes to the conflict in Myanmar, the ASEAN countries’ foreign direct investment in Myanmar is visible (DICA 2021). These kinds of economic ties might also be a factor in the ASEAN countries’ reluctance to take stronger decisions and actions.
Despite the differences, there are also similarities. Both conflicts could affect the neighboring countries, especially the ASEAN countries, especially in the form of migration and refugees. Another similarity is civilian causalities. Millions of people died during the Cambodian conflict, and there have already been thousands of deaths in Myanmar since the coup (AAPP 2021). Such numbers of causalities could affect the image of the region. The final similarity is that a poor handling of regional issues could also affect ASEAN’s credibility.
There were also the obvious outcomes of the two conflicts. The first outcome was the Indonesia-initiated conflict-resolution mechanism. Although Indonesia was actively involved in the resolution of both conflicts, it played a greater role in the Cambodian conflict (e.g., the JIM meetings). The second outcome was the ASEAN-led resolutions at the UN. During the Cambodian conflict, ASEAN sponsored and initiated UN resolutions to improve the situation, and this ASEAN involvement may have affected the participation of the UN’s P5 countries in the Cambodian conflict. ASEAN has not been actively involved at the UN in the same way during the conflict in Myanmar.
The two conflicts were regional issues and could not be ignored. As a regional organization, ASEAN (has) had to take care of both issues. The issue of Myanmar is still ongoing, and ASEAN should learn lessons about the Cambodian conflict. ASEAN has been unable to make significant progress on Myanmar and should therefore be considering alternative options. One of those options might be ASEAN initiating or sponsoring a resolution at the UN or cooperating with UNSC member countries to achieve some measure of progress.
It took years to make significant progress on the Cambodian conflict. ASEAN issued statements on the issue, but it took a long time for any real progress to be made. When the UN decided to take over the leadership role of ASEAN, it made significant progress. This is a great example showing why ASEAN should decide on an alternative option with regard to the current issue in Myanmar instead of solely focusing on the Five-Point Consensus and making statements.
South-East Asia is one of the most diverse regions in the world in many respects, including in terms of ethnicity and religion. As a result, the issues and problems in the region can be challenging to resolve, which means that ASEAN’s ability to handle regional issues is often limited. Moreover, none of the ASEAN members are major global powers. Therefore, it is difficult for the organization to take full responsibility for regional issues, which further limits ASEAN and compels it to heed the world order, regional order, and power dynamics when considering how to tackle regional issues.
Another possible reason for these limitations is that ASEAN’s predecessors were not successful, and these previous failures might make the founding countries of the ASEAN reconsider having such limitations placed on the organization. In addition, South-East Asia’s history with conflicts like Konfrontasi may have informed ASEAN’s non-interference policy and the ASEAN Way. Despite these limitations, ASEAN has been a regional organization in South-East Asia for over five decades and may be reluctant to move beyond the approach it has had to for such a long time.
Over the past 50 years, ASEAN has developed into a rules-based organization following the development of the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. Although ASEAN has seen major developments and become more organized compared with the organization that faced the Cambodian conflict 40 years ago, the issue of Myanmar has posed a serious challenge, and the Five-Point Consensus has proved to be unsuccessful at preventing the atrocities committed by the Myanmar military.
Understandably, ASEAN has limitations when it comes to resolving regional issues, and these limitations are linked to the organization’s norms and principles, which serve to prevent conflict and war among the member states. However, ASEAN’s failure to make any real progress on the Myanmar issue could affect its image as a regional organization.
The Cambodian conflict showed that ASEAN cannot achieve significant results on critical regional issues on its own. Regarding the issue of Myanmar, the international community has mostly focused exclusively on the Five-Point Consensus, but the association is limited in what it can achieve and cannot take full responsibility for regional issues. Alternative options should be considered for ASEAN to resolve the issue of Myanmar.
The following alternative options should be considered to avoid taking on so many responsibilities regarding the Myanmar issue. The first option might be for ASEAN to cooperate more with the United Nations, the European Union, and other international organizations. Unlike during the Cambodian conflict, there has been no significant involvement of ASEAN or the UN to resolve the Myanmar issue. Therefore, they should consider more concrete cooperation rather than focusing on the Five-Point Consensus alone.
Another possible option would be for individual member countries like Indonesia and Malaysia to take more diplomatic actions as individual countries. Indonesia has been heavily involved in both issues. The JIM, which happened during the Cambodian conflict, is a good example of an approach that could achieve results by moving beyond the Five-Point Consensus.
Finally, another possible alternative should be that ASEAN engage in discussions with the permanent member countries of the United Nations Security Council to look for alternative options on the issue of Myanmar. In the Cambodian case, handing over the leading role to the UNSC and the UN made a significant difference and delivered major results.
As discussed above, ASEAN continues to be limited in its ability to handle regional issues. These limitations are clear in the Cambodian conflict, and the current issue of the military coup in Myanmar shows those limitations are still in place for ASEAN. It is understandable that it is difficult for ASEAN to overcome those limitations. This is why ASEAN should consider its central role in the issue of Myanmar before the crisis damages the image of ASEAN as a regional organization.
As this study only focused on ASEAN’s role in the Cambodian conflict during the Third Indochina War, the roles of UNTAC and the UN during that time were not discussed or analyzed in this study. The role of UNTAC and whether it succeeded in post-conflict Cambodia should also be examined in future research. The impact of the UN resolutions sponsored and supported by ASEAN should also be investigated. Identifying the role of international communities in conflicts in South-East Asia could provide more options and alternatives for the current issue of Myanmar.
Although there were differences between the Cambodian conflict and the issue of Myanmar, they both affect the image of ASEAN as they are both regional issues. Hence, ASEAN should consider alternative possible options to avoid taking on so many responsibilities and affecting the image of the organization. Moving beyond the Five-Point Consensus and working together with the UN could be more effective for ASEAN when engaging with the Myanmar issue.
－ (2021b), Chairman’s Statement on the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting, 24 April 2021 and Five-Point Consensus, 24 April. Available online at: https://asean.org/chairmans-statement-on-the-asean-leaders-meeting-24-april-2021-and-five-point-consensus-2/.
－ (2021c), Chair’s Statement on the Informal ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (IAMM), 2 March. Available online at: https://asean.org/chairs-statement-on-the-informal-asean-ministerial-meeting-iamm/.
－ (2021d), ASEAN Chairman’s Statement on the Developments in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, 1st January. Available online at: https://asean.org/asean-chairmans-statement-on-the-developments-in-the-republic-of-the-union-of-myanmar/.
－ (1980), Joint Statement on Political Issues the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN Member States and Member States of the European Community, Kuala Lumpur, 8 March. Available online at: https://asean.org/joint-statement-on-political-issues-the-foreign-ministers-of-asean-member-states-and-member-states-of-the-european-community-kuala-lumpur-8-march-1980/.
－ (1979), Joint Statement of the ASEAN Foreign Minister Meeting, Bangkok.
－ (1967), The ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration), 8 August. Available at https://agreement.asean.org/media/download/20140117154159.pdf.
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