December 20, 2015 7:00 am JST
ASEAN Economic Community

Buddhism seen fostering core bloc

HIROSHI MURAYAMA, Nikkei senior staff writer

In Myanmar, Theravada Buddhism is a dominant religion.

YANGON -- While the Dec. 31 launch of the ASEAN Economic Community is unlikely to create a unified market of 600 million people right away, four countries with a common major religion are expected to form a nucleus within the new economic zone.

     Standing tall in central Yangon, Shwedagon Pagoda attracts both locals and foreign tourists, including many from Thailand. At some temples in the city, which is the former capital of Myanmar, three to five of every 10 foreign visitors are Thai. In fact, many Thais make pilgrimages to temples in Cambodia and Laos as well, while Thailand is a popular destination among people from neighboring countries. This is because Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia all share Theravada Buddhism -- a school originally spread from India -- as a dominant religion.

     Formation of a community is said to require a sense of cultural unity, including religion. As the European Union expanded with Christianity as the cultural backbone, Buddhism may play a key role in forging a community among the four countries in Southeast Asia.

     Thailand already hosts 3 million to 4 million workers from neighboring countries, including Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. The number is just shy of 10% of Thailand's worker population.

     Religion tends to spread in a way similar to transmission of economic activities, as religionists travel using roughly the same routes as merchants.

     Seen from this perspective, four blocs appear to exist within the ASEAN Economic Community, also known as AEC. One is the Theravada Buddhism region; the second is Indonesia and Malaysia, where Islam is a major religion. The third is Vietnam, where Mahayana Buddhism is popular; and fourth is the Philippines, where Christians are a majority.

     Trade statistics affirm these groupings. Thailand accounted for 41.7% of Myanmar's exports and 11.4% of imports in 2010. Thailand was also the No. 2 origin of imports to Cambodia with a 11.9% share in 2013, behind China's 32.6%. The numbers show the four Theravada Buddhism countries are mutually dependent for trade, anchored by Thailand.

     Indonesia shipped 5.5% of exports to Malaysia, compared with 3.3% for Thailand, in 2014. Vietnam does a lot of business with China and Japan, with imports to East Asia reaching a whopping 60.3% -- showing a strong link with the pair just as Mahayana Buddhism spread. The Philippines counts the U.S. as the No. 2 partner for both exports and imports, indicating its greater focus beyond the Pacific than on AEC.

     Establishment of the economic community will eliminate regional tariffs within three years. But various restrictions will remain in place for flows of capital, service and people, indicating that a truly unified market will not be forged for some time. The likely scenario for the AEC is that the quartet of Theravada Buddhism countries will unite first and gradually deepen ties with other blocs before comprehensive unification is eventually achieved.

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