Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN Secretary-General:
Following his five-year stint as Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), Thai academic and politician Surin Pitsuwan appears to have a lot more grey hair, perhaps the consequence of frequent flying and mediating among 10 culturally and economically diverse countries. It has certainly been an eventful half a decade for Harvard-educated Surin, who was once Thailand's foreign minister. He spared some of his busy time to sit for an interview with Tempo reporters Yuli Ismartono and Sita Planasari Aquadini. Excerpts from the interview:
If you could summarize your five years as ASEAN Secretary-General, what would be your high and low points?
The high point would be the international community's recognition of ASEAN. Today, it can claim to be a global player and the charter has given us a big boost. We have been able to establish in the psyche of all stakeholders that we are a viable regional organization and that the idea of ASEAN 10 countries, 600 million people is realistic and achievable. Most importantly, the profile of ASEAN within ASEAN has risen. When I came to the job, my objective was to make ASEAN a household word. Today, more than 80 percent of people in the region are aware of this experiment and they have pinned their hopes on ASEAN. We still need to do more and work on that 20 percent.
Basically, you have established credibility.
Yes, and confidence.
And the low points?
It would be trying to get member states to see the bigger picture, to concede certain parts of the decision-making to a larger entity. Many member states are still holding back. This is natural because many of us are still in the process of nation-building, trying to establish power and legitimacy of the state in the eyes of our own people. We are reluctant to concede any of the decision-making power or, in the international law language, part of our sovereignty. So you have to make a leap of faith in order to achieve long-term benefits.
So what you still see is a conflict of national versus regional interest?
Yes. I think the big picture is clear, but when it comes to the detailed implementation of various initiatives, we are still trying to reconcile national and regional interests. Sometimes, governments are under pressure from the private sector, from vested interests and from their own people.
Do you feel vindicated about Myanmar, given the international community's criticism on how ASEAN dealt with the issue?
I think ASEAN can certainly claim credit, but many people say that cyclone Nargis helped, because we have increased the level of Burma's confidence in what the international community can offer and I think that has led to the decision to open up, bit by bit. We could not have gone much faster because of the pace, the willingness and the confidence that the member states can muster in order to move forward. But together we have been able to nurture a sense of confidence in Myanmar, and the expectation that Burmese can do a lot more on their own if they are going to change their country.
What about the Rohingya problem?
I'm concerned about this. It should not be perceived as a Muslim-Islamic issue. It is a constitutional problem. There is a need to amend the constitution in order to recognize these people as an ethnic group. I think there are 36 ethnic groups that have been recognized, and this would be the 37th. But that is political. It is a very complex human rights issue, a democracy issue and a reconciliation issue of Myanmar's body politic. However, there are wider strategic and security implications and concern about the possibility of the Rohingyas becoming extremists and radicalized. That will put the entire region under threat. I'm thinking about the Malacca Strait. So it is in the interest of the entire international community, not just ASEAN and Myanmar, to think about this problem seriously.
So the Rohingya problem is not the same as the Muslim minorities in southern Thailand and the Philippines?
In those countries, they are citizens, minorities working within the system. There, it is an issue of justice, of access to resources. But as far as the legal status of the people are concerned, in southern Thailand and Philippines, they are citizens of their country. That's the difference.
Critics contend that ASEAN's low point may be its human rights record and its inter-governmental human rights commission.
I beg to disagree. I think a region moves at a pace that is comfortable to its member states. The fact is that they are committed to a human rights mechanism and a human rights declaration. They are not going to be perfect the first time. Member states are in different stages of development, so it's up to the civil societies, the stakeholders to take these official institutions seriously and to expand the space of their freedom, their liberty and their roles within the framework. These are official institutions and as such, they have limitations. Stakeholders should be active, get organized, be effective in the landscape. Appeal to them, challenge them, call on them, bring up the issues before them. When the human rights commission meets, the issues involve minority groups, the promotion of women's and children's rights, people who are marginalized. Dialectical relations among the institutions, officials, civil society and the people will help elevate the efficiency of the institution.
So you're optimistic?
I have to be. We can't say it's a low point. That's not the way to move forward. ASEAN exists because its people work together and push the parameters.
What about mechanisms for conflict resolution, both intra-ASEAN or when it involves external powers like China, which was a divisive issue in the last summit?
What happened in July sent the wrong message. The right message should be: we have differences, but we manage. But ASEAN needs to improve its mechanisms of coordination, cooperation and reconciliation. I think we have done quite well among ourselves, but we must do more about dealing with external parties. ASEAN has become the stage for power rivalry, we happen to be the new global area. What happened in July in Cambodia was a wake-up call for ASEAN to be more vigilant, more prepared. It's not going to be the last time. Senior officials are currently meeting in Bangkok on this very issue, to create a Code of Conduct with the Chinese because there is a sense of urgency.
Will we be on target in becoming a community by 2020?
Yes, in terms of emotional commitment. But there will be areas we will have to work on, just like other regional organizations. The EU continues to evolve. Some 73 percent of all the major instruments needed for an ASEAN economic community, agreements, protocols, initiatives, funds, whatever, have already been established. It is now an issue of implementation, of putting all these things into practice.
How long will it be for ASEAN to reach economic equilibrium?
There will be countries that will have to adopt similar processes. Myanmar is more aggressive in its reforms than some other member states of ASEAN.
Do you think this is linked to their chairmanship in 2014?
That would be partly the reason, because they must do a lot, not just physical preparations, the roads, the airlines, the telecommunications system, but also the soft side: the laws, the legal instruments. I told them it's not just more flights coming in, there must be space for the international media too, because the ASEAN people have a right to know where their chairman is going, where they are being led. So that's pressure on them, but I think they also have their own desire to catch up with the rest of ASEAN because of the connectivity and the integration with all the opportunities in ASEAN. They will be unable to benefit fully from the openness and dynamism of other ASEAN countries if they don't reform. That was the impetus to move quickly.
Will Timor-Leste become a member of ASEAN?
The application of Timor-Leste to join ASEAN is active. Senior officials have been tasked to look into this, to be thorough and comprehensive and at the same time, encourage East Timor to be prepared, enhance the capacity to engage. There are over 1,000 ASEAN meetings. It's costly and it needs capacity to follow and benefit from the discussions and the decisions. The process is open, serious and active.
Yet one ASEAN member is against East Timor joining, and what exactly is the objection?
It's preparedness. All member states will have to be convinced that East Timor is prepared, that it has the capacity in every way. Many ASEAN countries have helped East Timor to come into nationhood. Now, it's a matter of trying to help in state-building more effectively, to the point that it can engage in all activities of ASEAN.
Is there life after ASEAN for you, national politics or global diplomacy?
I don't have big plans. I am open to any opportunity. I want to be helpful inside my country, many things need to be done in Thailand. The private sector in Thailand is also interested in what I can do to promote more private sector participation and contribution to the ASEAN community. I think the idea of a Southeast Asia economic integration community needs champions. I hope I can continue to promote that idea, not only of an ASEAN community but an East Asia economic community. Globally, I am worried about the divisiveness within the cultural community, and I think my experience, has helped me to understand what is needed in order to bring people different backgrounds, different communities and civilizations, together. Many challenges the global community faces today cannot be resolved unless we have one common sentiment and that is global awareness that we belong to this little planet. We need to cooperate to resolve the challenges, whether it's climate change, pandemics or even economic disparities. I think the time for separate communities pursuing their separate interests has passed. That is the new challenge.
No. 12/13, November 13, 2012