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Preserving ASEAN's relevance

Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan says the bloc’s new charter has transformed it from leader-driven to people-driven

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ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand, during the 14th ASEAN Summit in the resort town of Cha-am on February 27.

Last year, Surin Pitsuwan, 59, the former foreign minister of Thailand, became the new ASEAN secretary general. Articulate and Harvard-educated, Pitsuwan has often ruffled feathers around the region and continued to do so when he took over the helm of the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta. Often speaking off the cuff, he had a tendency to express views that were not entirely to the liking of many ASEAN members. Things have improved, although many feel the sting has gone out Surin's pronouncements. He has, in short, become a true ASEAN man. When pushed, however, he cannot resist slipping in deft provocations. He was interviewed by Roger Mitton in Bangkok shortly before the 14th ASEAN Summit in Cha-am, Thailand.

Cambodia was the last member to join ASEAN. Do you think its inclusion in the group has helped it become more stable and democratic?

The inclusion of Cambodia has been mutually advantageous. Certainly, ASEAN has benefitted from the membership of Cambodia. Indeed, on some issues, Cambodia has played a very constructive role. And Cambodia itself, while it took some time to join, has also benefitted from the support and the cooperation of ASEAN, even in the settlement of its own internal affairs.

Regarding disputes between members, like that between Cambodia and Thailand over Preah Vihear, ASEAN seems rather toothless.

I don't think so. In that particular case, ASEAN encouraged the parties to reach a resolution amicably and bilaterally. And ASEAN members were, and continue to be, standing by, making phone calls, making visits, making representations. I appealed to some members to get involved, positively, to express concern and to encourage caution and restraint. Many of them did so without my nudging or appeal. In the end, the issue did not play up. So, I think that the restraint and caution that was urged by their ASEAN colleagues had some impact.

You said the Myanmar government has cooperated well with ASEAN in the Nargis relief effort. Can we build on that cooperation to engage Myanmar more?

Ten years ago, there was a need to encourage more candid and more open discussions about problems between us in ASEAN. Because, while some of those problems might be domestic in nature, others could affect the neighbourhood. Now, of course, globalisation has done away with the notion that you can have absolute control of your own problems. I think that has been realised across ASEAN. So that in Myanmar, what they are doing now is more like flexible engagement. In fact, they have even gone beyond that. They are very, very open and candid about their engaging. And on some of the matters sensitive to them, they volunteer to give a briefing to their ASEAN colleagues. I think that is progress.

The new ASEAN charter has provisions for safeguarding human rights and democracy. Do you think all the members will adhere to them?

We are a diverse group in ASEAN. We go every which way, including in the implementation of economic goals, governance, the way in which the societies are governed. We are very diverse. The good thing that the charter brings is to clearly specify and spell out these things. I don't think the power of the charter should be underestimated. It spells out the mission that every member must aspire to and must try to achieve.

So you don't think the diversity will deplete the force of the charter?

I think the various elements in the whole spectrum of ASEAN, including the people of all member states, will have to take a look at the charter and seek ways to really enforce it. For the last four decades, ASEAN has been a leader-driven organisation. The new charter now provides for people to participate and make a contribution. If people take that seriously, we'll have a chance to help drive and shape the region and the organisation. If they don't, then you can't blame the leaders. They have made their commitment. They have opened up the space. Now it's for the people of ASEAN to seize the opportunity.

Getting the charter ratified was not easy, especially in Thailand with all the unrest last year.

That's right, the most difficult part was in Thailand. But also in Indonesia and the Philippines, which have their own rhythm, their own processes to go through. It was a lesson for all of us, that in the open systems, you can't take anything for granted. And if you want democracy, you have noises. You have a lot of people who want to be part of the process. So it was a good learning experience. And the charter has certainly given us a boost. People around the world are taking ASEAN much more seriously because of the charter.

You're an optimist?

Well, I don't see it as unusual that some ASEAN members may be reluctant, or may interpret the words of the charter differently. It's really up to the people. My hope is that they will make a contribution and they will drive the organisation onward. Perhaps bit by bit, perhaps slowly. But the space is there. Seize it.

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is pushing for a European Union-style Asian community. Won't that diminish ASEAN?

The role of ASEAN will only be diminished by the activities of ASEAN, not by any other architectures outside. Even without those architectures, if ASEAN, as an organisation, does not deliver on the promises in the charter, then it's going to be diminished. My commitment is to make sure that does not happen, to make sure that ASEAN is relevant and continues to be relevant. But in doing that, we cannot restrain anybody from exercising imagination. It is for the good of the region. I told Mr Rudd that we need to know more about his vision. These challenges help keep ASEAN's momentum going.

You were foreign minister in the last Democrat Party-led government in Thailand. Now the Democrats are back in power, do you not regret leaving to become ASEAN secretary general?

No. I was asked by the leadership of the Democrat Party to come back, but I declined. I said I've made my decision, thank you very much. I'll come back and serve when I'm free. But for now, I'm committed to this job. I'll give it my best five years. It's extremely challenging. Often very inspiring. Often very much under pressure - but I think that's to be expected. I have said that I would give my full measure to the job, and I think ASEAN needs someone with a very strong commitment in order to drive it forward under the new charter.

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