For a complete audio recording of Dr. Surin’s speech (as well as recordings of other major presentations) go HERE
BANGKOK (Jan. 24) — If ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, does not thoroughly reinvent itself, it could rapidly slip into irrelevance, the new Secretary-General of the organization said here this week.
And that rethinking, said Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, the former Foreign Minister of Thailand, starts with the adoption of a concrete constitution, or charter, that will guide the 40-year-old organization into a new era of political, economic, social and even strategic relevance in the region and in the world.
Surin made his remarks in an address before nearly 200 journalists and guests at the opening session of a major media conference sponsored by the East-West Center of Honolulu and co-hosted by the National Press Council of Thailand. Click here to read a blog on the conference proceedings.
There was a time, Surin said, when ASEAN’s relevance was largely dependent on its role as an honest broker across Asia. “Dialogue partners,” such as China and Japan, found ASEAN meetings a congenial place for their own often-difficult bilateral conversations.
But with China, Japan and other big powers now talking more directly to each other, ASEAN must come up with a fresh role, he argued. And that, he said, is as a charter-driven regional leader and global player.
“If ASEAN can grow into a viable, strong and effective and dynamic growth sector, the world will have one less region to worry about, and that is enormous,” he said.
In addition to tending to its own region, Surin said, a revitalized ASEAN can serve as a fulcrum and balance against other global power centers. These include not only traditional powers such as the U.S., Japan and the European Union, but the rapidly rising economies of India and China.
ASEAN can also provide a leadership role as the globe struggles to find a path to understanding between the Muslim and Western worlds, said Surin, who is himself a Muslim. Half of the population of the region encompassing ASEAN is Muslim and is generally a moderate, progressive and open population that has much to teach to the rest of the world, he said.
“The road to reconciliation between the Muslim and Western world runs through Southeast Asia,” Surin declared.
The ten nations that make up ASEAN easily have the economic and human potential to be a major player on the world stage, Surin said. But that won’t happen automatically, nor will it happen under an ASEAN as it is now loosely configured, he said.
“As a group of small states, the leaders of ASEAN began thinking: ‘We had better consolidate ourselves and create more attraction among and between ourselves if we wish to remain the core of community-building in this region,’” Surin said. “But to remain in the driver’s seat, ASEAN needs a driver’s license, and that is coming in the form of a charter.”
What a charter – a constitution – does, he said, is set ASEAN on a concrete path to move beyond “dialogue” and consultation to a true leadership role.
One major obstacle to adoption of a charter is concern among some member nations, particularly the Philippines, that the current draft does not make a strong enough statement about the region’s commitment to human rights and democracy. This clearly is aimed at member-state Burma and its military government.
In the best of all possible worlds, Surin said, a strong statement on democracy and the rule of law might make sense.
“But let us begin somewhere,” he said. “We cannot start with a perfect document today and hope every member will sign on to it. We can help people understand the importance of human rights, and we should. But we have to start somewhere.”
Giving up the momentum toward a vibrant charter because of the debate about human rights would be a major loss, he suggested.
“Without a strong center, ASEAN cannot remain the fulcrum of power plays in the region,” Surin said. “It cannot remain in the driver’s seat in political, economic and security affairs.”
“It’s a difficult challenge indeed,” he admitted. “But the alternative is irrelevance and marginalization – we will be left behind, because things all around us are moving and growing very fast.”