As a trying year for the regional body wraps up, ASEAN observers have their sights set on this month’s high-level summit, where some of the biggest global security issues are expected to be broached. In town for just a few hours to present the keynote speech at a symposium on ASEAN economic development sponsored by the government and Harvard University, ASEAN Secretary-General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan sat down with the Post’s Abby Seiff, to reflect on the body’s main challenges and Cambodia’s time as chair.
I know you have been making a public push for ASEAN states to help resolve the violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state. How is that progressing?
This is an issue of human security, an issue that we can really not tolerate for too long. The reason being that violence of that nature could have a spillover effect. In this case, it has all the elements, the chemistry, of radicalization, potentially. If all of us become ineffective, unable to guarantee safety and security or provide protection through our cooperation, these people are going to be left very hopeless, frustrated and very much being driven into desperation. We don’t know what desperation is going to lead to. What I am concerned is radicalization, extremism, can be an ideology that will be adopted because there is no other course. Then I can see other states being affected.
I wrote the foreign ministers and the chair here inviting all to come and lets talk about this issue. But it did not gain consensus.
And why not?
Because Myanmar said it is our internal [issue], everything is under control, and we are taking steps.
Where does that leave ASEAN when the one country involved is refusing to play ball?
Well that's what I'm asking, and I'm hoping that at least humanitarian engagement will send a signal that we care, that will be some pressure, and that will give us some time to look for other options. It looks like it's going to be recurrent; it's not going to be contained. But the potential implications, as I've said, have wider strategic and security implications for the entire region.
You think this is something that will spread across the region?
It could, it could, and I don’t think that we can risk that. I don’t think anybody would want to risk that. But first: humanitarian engagement. Our engagement, whatever it is, should not be a divisive entry. It should be contributing to a healing process.
And what happens if that fails to have the desired effect?
I can only say that I'm concerned. I'm concerned.
Just to shift gears a bit, but still speaking of human rights, there's been a lot of criticism from human rights groups and from the opposition over what they see as a worsening rights record. Some have called for foreign leaders to boycott this month's summit; they've called for the summit to be moved. Do you think its rights record has an impact on a country's ability to be an effective chair and should it be taken into consideration?
Well, they certainly have their own mechanisms to address and to allow people to bring the issues for consideration, for redress. And I think the fact these issues are being brought out to the public - complaints could be made, criticism could be leveled against - it's already a good development. As far as the direct redress of those issues, I think we will have to, at this point, defer to the national government. We have to give that space to the government, to the governmental institutions, to the government processes. Those civil societies, those victims can make use of pre-existing processes and institutions. I would venture to say the complaints in complete form have not been forthcoming.
What do you mean by that?
There have not been many official complaints.
Well I don’t think that's true, there have been quite a lot, I think it's very much on the public record, all of the international rights groups have covered it in depth.
Well I'm talking about the institutions that already exist. Official. That could be used.
I think it's still underutilized.
I think that might be reflective of a public mistrust in these institutions.
Well I can't help that. [laughs] I can't help that. I'm trying to improve that, but if you don't complain, you don’t use the resource because you don’t trust it, then we have no way to go. These institutions can be utilized more. I think the media can do more. I think civil society can get organized more and bring the issues to the open. In come countries, you can't do this at all, so make use of the space that is open.
Can you be a little more specific? Because it seems like people are making use of, maybe not the government human rights bodies, but everything short of that. Complaints have been filed at the International Criminal Court, for example…
I'm responsible for the ASEAN mechanisms. I have not seen [many complaints], not just from here; I haven't seen much from member states.
So nobody is filing complaints with the ASEAN mechanism?
Not as it should be. My hope is that people will take it more seriously. It’s there to be used, to be utilized.
So are ASEAN's arms tied unless these complaints are filed through the formal mechanism? I mean, if people are protesting on the street and writing letters to the New York Times…
There's no human rights court in ASEAN to hand down judgment. But there are procedures and institutions where these complaints can be filed. And then let us follow through. But if you ask me, am I going to come in and raise the issue on this? I won't. Because there are those agencies that are specifically designed and established for that.
And what do you say to those who make these specific desires known, such as Cambodia's chairmanship should be revoked or the summit should be moved to another country?
I think those are individual opinions. I cannot comment on that.
Is it bad PR for ASEAN when these things keep coming up?
Some may think so, but personally, I can't say that.
Can I ask for an update on where the Code of Conduct governing disputes in the South China Sea is?
They met yesterday and the day before yesterday in Pattaya, and that's the first meeting, the first good step. Before that, they were trying to avoid it, now they have come together. So it's a good sign, a good start. I think there's a sense of urgency on all sides that this will have to be managed and managed well, so that the world will not become too anxious and too concerned. Because it's already diminished the confidence in the region, and while the region is doing everything else right – with growth, with investment, with economic dynamism – it's not good. So I think sitting down is good.
What's the likelihood we'll see something in November?
No, I don't think November is possible, but definitely it's a good preparation for November.
Now that Cambodia's chairmanship is coming to a close, can I just ask you to reflect upon how they did? I know there was a lot of criticism after July, when the bloc failed to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in its 45-year history.
I think, you know, Cambodia was the last member in. [They joined] only in 1999. And this is its second term serving as ASEAN chair. And it has made a lot of preparation, and it has certainly brought many initiatives that we have had in the past few years. The South China Sea may be seen as an issue of difference, an issue of difficulty, but at the same time, it has given a higher sense of urgency and awareness that this is an issue that has to be addressed effectively and completely by all parties concerned.
And then on the strategic issues, I think this will be the second time of the expanded East Asia Summit. It will be interesting with Russia, the US coming back for a second time, and I think they feel more part of the process, and a lot of issues are going to be brought up. The trust, the confidence that this forum is going to sow is already a vote of confidence, and it's taking place here. So, Cambodia's doing quite well.
Well, with all due respect, I think a lot of that probably reflects the work that you did and that Indonesia's Foreign Minister [Marty Natalegawa] did. There was a lot of damage control going on in the past year.
Well, I think the momentum is there and each is making its own contribution. Yes, there's a lot of diplomacy behind the scenes, but, well, that's proof of ASEAN resilience rather than ASEAN failure. That we could, somehow, bind together and regain our balance. This kind of test is going to happen along the way, once in a while. We have gone through these things before. Myanmar was [one], for a long, long time. Now Myanmar has ceased to be a problem – except for that issue [of the Rohingya].
Which is a big one.
Yes, I think, but these types of issues are going to be testing ASEAN resiliency over and over. But we have proven also to be able to regain the balance and move on.
To contact the reporter on this story: Abby Seiff at [email protected]