Guest Column

Asean's New Challenges Post-Phnom Penh

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 23 July 2012

The “Phnom Penh incident,” as it is now known, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In the weeks since, Asean leaders and all organs of the 45-year-old grouping have been shaken to the core. Questions are being asked: Could the disastrous outcome be avoided? The answer is affirmative but with many caveats.

Indeed, the Asean Secretariat could have saved the faltering creditability of its members, or at the very least the Asean chair, at the Phnom Penh conference if only members appreciated the importance of the Jakarta-based headquarters.

Kavi Chongkittavorn
Kavi Chongkittavorn
Kavi Chongkittavorn

Lo and behold, they did not know that the under-funded and under-staffed institution is a central mechanism of Asean. If allowed, its chief and staffers can perform summersaults ending deadlocks and tackling biases existing within the organization and the deeply mistrustful psyches of members. After all, the secretary-general and Asean Secretariat have the mandate to mediate as well as perform administrative tasks.

The current chair could easily seek, if he wished, the secretariat’s assistance to find a common ground to end the impasse on the South China Sea and other sensitive issues. Instead, the chair took things in his own hands—nothing wrong with that—and in the process his fingers were bitten and he rid himself of the much-cherished neutrality that was required.

In fact, Dr. Surin Pitsuwan and his staff, who have kept an impartial watch on Asean’s interests, were eager to help. They could have been Asean’s saviors as they understand the Ps and Qs of the bloc’s political games. They are also very familiar with all cross-sector activities and cooperation as well as the organization’s numerous priorities.

Former Thai Foreign Minister Dr. Surin brought with him a unique perspective of the secretariat, which was founded a decade after Asean was formed in 1976. It was planned as a loose organization without any real power simply to coordinate programs and direct paperwork flow from member countries.

Not until 2008 were the secretary-general and secretariat given real power under the charter’s mandate to keep up with challenges. The amount of work that the 76 international staffers have to do is just too overwhelming at present. Just imagine, they have to attend thousands of meetings each year observing, reading and digesting piles of documents and, most importantly, note down members’ dos and don’ts.

Last year, they participated in at least in 1,200 meetings at various levels—nearly three meetings a day. During his five-year tenure, which is ending soon at the end of the year, Surin has travelled massive distances to meet leaders from around the world and take parts in numerous discussions.

His presence has increased the bloc’s international profile and creditability. He knows the pulse of Asean, and its strength and weaknesses. Most importantly, he knows what others expect of Asean.

Since the Phnom Penh incident, the focus of criticism was mostly blamed on the role of the chair. This is a little unfair. Actually, the main culprit was also the lack of clarity of Asean’s rules and procedures and that of the secretariat itself.

Asean leaders have, in fact, taken for granted that their annual conferences would automatically end up with a joint communiqué every time. After all, for the past 45 years, that has been the modus operandi. They have never faced such a humiliation before. The South China Sea is just a small symptom of a bigger disease plaguing Asean that happened to surface at this juncture.

In retrospect, the Asean Secretariat should have played the central role when the members got stuck in their deliberations in the Cambodian capital. Its staffers have the expertise and institutional knowledge that no others have—especially those in rotational chairs and officials involved in the Asean affairs.

There are only 891 days left for the realization of the Asean Community. Time is running out. Member countries have yet to implement the required action plans of the three pillars—political, economic and social.

The roadmap to community-building has already pinpointed a total of 667 action lines. Granted that even if all are fully implemented, it does not mean that the community-building is complete. This is an evolutionary process which has to continue and engage the citizens of Asean.

Seriously, how many countries have really looked into these schemes and worked out systematic implementation of their recommendations ahead of the Asean Community deadline? As the deadline approaches, the project might very well just be an empty promise.

One of the biggest challenges of Asean is not what their leaders want to do but what their citizens are inspired to be. The secretary-general and Asean Secretariat have the duty to turn these inspirations into tangible outcomes. In fact, their leaders come and go but the 600 million Asean citizens will remain the cradle of the whole region.

Asean is a still a top down organization even with the adoption of its charter in 2008. However, of late there have more consultations between the secretariat and stakeholders, which is now becoming indispensable. What virtues do they have if Asean leaders simply do not understand the needs of their own peoples?

For better or for worse, the future of Asean is in their hands. If they are proactive, they will drive the people-centered community-building further. If they are passive, they will be held hostage by their leaders as has been played out at annual conferences.

Asean leaders do not have the capacity to follow or implement the nitty-gritty of bloc projects at regional level. In fact, how many Asean leaders really understand the concept of regionalism that is emerging, for instance?

The Asean charter will be the subject of review next year when Brunei is chairing Asean. The role of the secretary-general and the strengthening of the Asean Secretariat will certainly be at the top of the agenda.

This article first appeared in the Bangkok-based The Nation newspaper. Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.