At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Phnom Penh in November 2012, regional leaders agreed to set up the Asean Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR). It took over a year before they could agree on the terms of reference and its funding. In the years to come, it is hoped that the AIPR will play an important role in providing Asean and its leaders with inputs regarding peace-building and conflict resolution. In other words, it is aimed at strengthening the organization’s ability to practice preventive diplomacy. Of course, in the long term it would need the Asean leaders’ political will and determination to attain these noble objectives. It is a tall order.
According to the Asean Political-Security Community Blueprint approved in 2009, one big idea is how the grouping can effectively deal with conflict resolution, including calls for the strengthening of existing mechanisms for settling disputes. Until now, Asean has been able to deal with trade and economic disputes which began two decades ago, but it was a bold step for the regional bloc to agree to set up the AIPR to promote preventive diplomacy.
In December 2012, representatives of Asean governments, academics, NGOs and the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) met in Rangoon to exchange views on ways and means their organizations can learn from each other and in the future, if possible, undertake joint cooperation schemes. On the Burmese side, representatives from several major ethnic groups, including the Chin, Mon, Arakanese, Pa-o, Karenni, Karen and Shan minorities, joined in the brainstorming session.
Since the MPC was opened in November, with the funding provided by the European Union, it has been active in organizing seminars and workshops related to confidence-building and peace-making measures. The center, which is run by a former professor of international politics, Kyaw Yin Hlaing, will serve as a platform for the peace process inside the country.
From the perspective of Asean, the MPC is something new. There is no other institute of its kind in the region. In the US and Europe, there are peace institutes which were established after World War II to help promote dialogue and cooperation in peace-building and promoting preventive diplomacy. These institutes also linked with the United Nation’s peace-keeping efforts. These institutes and their officials meet regularly to discuss lessons and best practices in conflict prevention and preventive diplomacy.
So far, the only region-wide platform to discuss such issues in Asean is the current Asean Regional Forum, which was set up in 1995 to discuss issues impacting on peace and stability in the region. The ARF has moved gradually from the first stage of confidence-building measures toward preventive diplomacy. However, some Asean countries are still reluctant to go along with the flow because they fear the ARF process is moving too fast. After the preventive diplomacy, the final step would be concentrate on conflict resolution.
With AIPR, Asean can work with other organizations with similar purposes. Indeed, more than the Asean leaders would like to admit, at present Asean urgently needs to enhance its capacity in good office, mediation and conciliation as intra-ASEAN conflicts have arisen. One example is the Thai-Cambodian conflict over the Hindu temple on their shared border, which caused repeated border skirmishes between the two sides, with significant civilian casualties.
During Dr. Surin Pitsuwan’s tenure as secretary general of Asean from 2008-2012, he tried to raise the profile of that role so he could help with the peace process. Surin played an important in providing good offices for international and Asean efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Burma in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.
In the near future, the AIPR will explore the plan to list names of Asean experts and mediators. After that, they can collaborate to draw up guidelines related to good offices, mediation and conciliation. In the next few years, the focus will be on the effort to build its knowledge base and overall capacity in conflict prevention.
The MPC and AIPR can continue to exchange views and consult each other informally as both institutions are nascent and need time to consolidate their work. With the ongoing peace process inside Burma with the ethnic minorities, Asean has the opportunity to learn first-hand about the ongoing peace process. Kyaw Yin Hlaing said that whatever transpires in the future peace process in Burma, the MPC will share its experiences with Asean members.