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Commentary: Can ASEAN fly with a new face?

Naing Ko Ko

Jan 25, 2008 (DVB), ASEAN secretary-general Dr Surin Pitsuwan will need to overcome many obstacles if he is to reshape ASEAN's structure, principles and outlook to better meet the needs of the people of ASEAN.

At the start of 2008, Dr Surin Pitsuwan took office as secretary-general of ASEAN, having been nominated for the post by the military government of Thailand last year. He is charged with bringing ASEAN closer in line with international moral responsibilities and dignity in the global political arena.

There has been a leadership vacuum in ASEAN since Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Matathir retired from its political horizon. Will Dr Surin and his Thai diplomacy be able to play a significant role at the local, regional and international levels?

Thai diplomacy will face some opposition from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma, the poor and illiberal newer members of ASEAN, because of proposals for a policy of "flexible engagement" outlined in a non-paper handed out in the 1998 ASEAN ministerial meeting in Manila, Philippines. The Thai policy was formulated by Dr Surin and Dr M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra during former democrat Chuan Leekpai’s administration. The non-paper challenged the present core policies of ASEAN: non-intervention, the ASEAN Way and constructive engagement, the latter also a Thai brainchild, formulated by former Thai Foreign Minister Arsa Sarasin in 1991, according to Ambassador Mr Asda Jayanama of Thailand.

It is no exaggeration to say that Dr Surin has both the intellectual abilities and field experience of diplomacy and foreign affairs to handle ASEAN. However, the contemporary political landscape and practices of state leaders from Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam, could stop ASEAN getting off the ground in the race for modernization, globalization and democratization.

Moreover, external factors such as growing economic interdependence, globalization, international terrorism, transnational migration and non-traditional security issues mean that ASEAN members cannot afford to be complacent any longer about bilateral, regional or inter-regional problems.

There are countless challenges and obstacles facing Dr Surin as secretary-general of ASEAN. Among these is the need to restructure or renew the current unproductive and inefficient management mechanism of ASEAN. It is time to reshape Asean's principles, structure and leadership to create a new model for a democratic ASEAN.

Firstly, no judges have been selected or appointed to the High Council since its inception. The High Council should be established as a political mechanism for solving bilateral/trilateral problems and disputes between member states. The High Council should select judges to look into the legal procedures for dealing with existing disputes and problems. Dr Surin could help to develop a proactive policy of results-oriented engagement in ASEAN.

Secondly, ASEAN ought to adopt common foreign and security policies to create harmony between globalization and regionalization and to become a more coherent and effective organisation. A democratic ASEAN parliament should be introduced to achieve a more people-oriented ASEAN. In addition, it should introduce accepted common basic principles for international dialogue to ensure smoother cooperation, such as those used by the United Nations, the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the African Union.

Third, every member country’s political system must reflect the needs of the people living in that country, which means that basic political freedoms and civil rights should be established within each political system. The ASEAN community should guarantee democratic principles, pluralism and government for the people, of the people and by the people. This means that ASEAN has a responsibility for policies which directly affect the social life and well-being of the people of ASEAN. ASEAN should allow the ASEAN People’s Assembly, civil society and independent academics to oversee the monitoring, formulation and regulation of these policies.

Fourth, ASEAN should improve cooperation on justice and home affairs to solve the problems of transnational migration, human trafficking, international terrorism, asylum-seeking, transnational crime and crimes against humanity, guided by the universal standards of human rights, individual rights and workers' rights.

Fifth, ASEAN should adopt "community citizenship" and a "social charter" to involve the people of ASEAN in the preparation, formulation and adoption of decisions and policies. Moreover, ASEAN should work hand in hand with member states, employers, and trade unions to draw up social safety standards for the workplace, so that all workers will enjoy the same labour rights and level of labour protection throughout the ASEAN community.

Sixth, ASEAN should adjust the economic structure of member states to decrease the development gap between the rich founding fathers of ASEAN-5 and latecomers Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Moreover it should adopt legal enforcement mechanisms for environmental protection and emergency crisis management to monitor emergencies and natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fires, haze, volcanic eruptions and epidemics.

Seventh, ASEAN should strengthen the UN-ASEAN relationship and take on international moral responsibilities, following the example of NATO, the AU and the UN’s peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding mechanisms. It should focus on "results-oriented engagement" by bringing in an ASEAN centre for peacekeeping, conflict prevention and conflict management.

Eighth, the ASEAN Secretariat should be restructured to give it enough power and flexibility to work more efficiently and strengthen social capital and human security. The ASEAN Secretariat should also promote better dialogue with the private sector, non-government organizations, parliamentarians, academics, student unions, labour unions and independent local authorities.

Ninth, the secretary-general of ASEAN should be given more executive power and a greater mandate to solve problems such as non-traditional security issues affecting the 567 million people of ASEAN.

Naing Ko Ko is a postgraduate scholarship student in International Relations at Auckland University, New Zealand and a former political prisoner of Burma.


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