There is nothing wrong with links between academic and trading organisations, and our hats off to the organizers of the recent EuroSEAS Conference in Naples for obtaining co-funding and sponsorship for the event not only from the Campania Region where Naples is situated but also from SPRINT (Regional Office for International Business), a regional trading and business organization with a brief to encourage and develop international business connections with the region. During the academic conference a Business Workshop was held titled ‘Economic Cooperation with Southeast Asia’ attended by representatives of ASEAN companies and trading federations such as the Indonesian Footware Association, Thailand Gempolis, Vietnam Vinalines, Philippines Meycauayan Jewellery, and Singapore was also represented. Naples is well-known for its work in silver and gold. The representative from the Indonesian Automotive Manufacturer’s Association (GAIKINDO) for example gave a speech (see Jakarta Post 14 September) in which he expressed his hopes that big Italian companies like Fiat and Ducati would be encouraged to invest in Indonesia. ‘For the first time, we are organising this business forum as part of EuroSEAS in order to overcome the perceived divide between the scientific community and the ‘real world’ ‘ gallantly announced Pietro Masina, co-organiser of the conference and now Chairman of EUROSEAS, which is of course a scholarly and non-profit making organisation devoted to coordinating and fostering associations for the study of South East Asia and uniting several national memberships within Europe (like ASEASUK).
But let us consider this in some context. ASEAN and the EU are on the brink of signing a free trade treaty for a trading zone which would cover nearly 1 billion people and is potentially among the largest in the world. The EU was ASEAN’s third largest trading partner in 2005, trade between the two accounting for 140.5 billion US dollars in that year alone. It has been argued (by the Malaysian Trade Minister Aziz on a visit to Frankfurt in late October for instance) that Myanmar’s membership of ASEAN must not be allowed to stand in the way of this, with some EU Parliamentarians arguing conversely that Myanmar should be excluded from the deal. Glyn Ford, one of a 7-member team of Europeans MPs visiting Singapore in early October, said the EU had at that time no intention of including Myanmar in the proposed FTA. Against this background, the refusal of delegates to the EuroSEAS conference to adopt a Resolution condemning the atrocities which were taking place in Burma at that very time strikes me as ludicrously inept. To make my own part in this clear, I was the one who proposed the Resolution! There was a particularly strong argument against it from a Russian member, on the grounds that as a scholarly body, EuroSEAS should not become involved in making such political pronouncements.
One can of course see his point, and where he may be coming from, but hold on a minute – first, even assuming EuroSEAS were a ‘purely academic’ organisation, there are precedents (such as with the American Assocation for Asian Studies) for resolutions to be passed in cases where research can be shown to be seriously affected by developments in a particular region. Given the continuing inability of many researchers to gain free access to Burma (although some do, see New Mandala’s interview with Bob Taylor) and the fact that Burma has become practically the invisible country of Southeast Asia in terms of academic knowledge owing to several decades of military authoritarian rule, there seems a strong case for making an announcement even if on purely academic grounds. But the point here is, if EuroSEAS is becoming involved with trading organisations and linkages between Europe and the 10 ASEAN countries, and even accepting funding from such organisations, it has already foregone its right to be considered as an ivory tower organisation with no feet in the ‘real world’ and should indeed take a stand on this and probably other issues of political and economic besides academic import – isues of serious academic and human rights concern. How can it not?
Frankly the situation in Burma does not strike me as a political question in the sense that it may be a matter for ‘left-wing’ as opposed to ‘right-wing’ views; it is just an absolutely shocking travesty of all human rights and reasoned principles of democratic and civilised behaviour and the refusal to condemn it outright is effectively to support the imprisonment of innocent protestors, the beating and killing of monks, and a regime of sheer terror and cruelty. It is interesting to note that Naples is the homeland of the Camorra, the crime organisation responsible for drugs traffic and many other illegal activities in the region. Camorra bosses, like the currently imprisoned Raffaele Cutolo, who recently fathered a baby despite being denied congugal visiting rights for more than two decades, it is said by artificial insemination (his wife’s name is Immacolata!), have strong links with legal and illegal and semi-legal businesses (they run 2,500 illegal bakeries and are involved with illegal waste management as well), and the local extremely impoverished economy depends importantly on the Camorra. There is also an important business selling fake clothes on to the US market. If the EU goes ahead with a trade deal with ASEAN which includes Burma, the Campania region of Italy may have a lot to talk to the military junta bosses in Naypyidaw about in future years.