ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said Tuesday that quotes attributed to him in media reports that have caused anger among Cambodian officials were “taken totally out of context”.
In a statement released Tuesday evening, Surin said he was misquoted in a March 5 media report that suggested he was “very concerned” with recent Cambodian military exercises.
Instead, Surin said he was expressing concern over ongoing border tensions between Cambodia and Thailand.
“The question directed at me was of a general nature, and my responses were with specific reference to the prevailing situation along the Cambodian-Thai border which I have expressed on many occasions before,” Surin said in the statement.
The original media report from Bernama, the Malaysian news agency, used Surin’s comments to suggest ASEAN fears last week’s rocket tests “may send a wrong signal”.
“We are very concerned with such development,” the report quoted Surin as saying, noting that he declined to elaborate on the issue: “I have no details. I have to look into the details first.”
The comments provoked accusations from Cambodian officials that Surin had overstepped his role by commenting on a member country’s internal affairs. Prime Minister Hun Sen suggested Surin had “abused” his role as secretary general and was “not suitable” for the position.
In Tuesday’s statement, Surin said he had no knowledge at the time of the rocket tests. The statement said Surin expressed his “deep regret” the issue had sparked “a very unfortunate and unwarranted effect”.
A government spokesman, however, said the ASEAN secretary general should not even be discussing the border issue with Thailand, let alone last week’s military exercise.
“He’s not supposed to do any statement or communicate with the media to show his position at all,” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said. “He has to be neutral and professional. That’s what we wanted.”
Phay Siphan suggested Surin knew what he was discussing when he was quoted in the media report last week.
“He’s supposed to be professional and know what kinds of words, what kinds of quotations to use,” he said. “I understand the media. If he did like this, then he takes advantage of the media.”
Though Surin went out of his way to clarify the reported comments, he has generally been part of a trend towards a more vocal ASEAN, said Chris Roberts, a lecturer at the University of Canberra.
“There has been a pattern over the last 10 years of the secretariat being more assertive in commenting on internal matters that are a problem to the region,” he said in an interview before Surin’s statement was released last night.
Roberts suggested ASEAN was in the middle of “an identity crisis”, with states including Cambodia pushing for traditional non-interference and “quiet diplomacy”, and others advocating for more open discussion on regional issues.
“We are seeing a push for change. The problem with those [traditional] values is that ASEAN hasn’t been able to address controversial issues. There will always be one member willing to object,” Roberts said.