Monday, 21 February 2011

ASEAN mulls Thai-Cambodia issue

via CAAI

Monday, February 21, 2011
By Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation (Thailand)/Asia News Network

Now that the ball is in ASEAN's court, any protracted move of the ongoing Thai-Cambodian dispute can further delay the realization of the grouping's one community in the next 1,417 days.

Regardless of the outcome, when the ASEAN foreign ministers meet on the afternoon of Feb. 22 in Jakarta, it will mark a historic moment for ASEAN as a rule-based organization's efforts to pursue effective dialogues to help warring members find a workable solution. ASEAN's future actions will be utmost cautious and yet forward-looking. Consensus would be required for any ASEAN collective endeavor, which will essentially be based on the lowest denominators.

Indonesia, the current rotating chair, understands very well this ASEAN reality. Before the people's revolution in 1998, which overthrew the strongman president Suharto, the grouping's largest member was infamous for dragging its feet on various ASEAN economic and political schemes of cooperation.

Now the chair has been the main driving force to move ASEAN forward and create a new ASEAN way that would go beyond the ASEAN Community. Absolutely, no ASEAN chairs in recent memory have had such a comprehensive and ambitious plan for ASEAN as advocated by Indonesia.

As such, Indonesia has to ensure that there is sufficient progress toward the resolution of the Thai-Cambodian conflict at the scheduled informal meeting. Otherwise, the chair's agenda — “ASEAN Community in a Global Community of Nations” — could be bogged down with political rhetoric and mudslinging as border fighting continues sporadically. Truth be told, Indonesia has roughly 10 months to lay down the foundation and finish what it plans for ASEAN.

When Indonesia proposed to set up the ASEAN Political and Security Community in 2003, it was envisaged that ASEAN would then become an organization that could help settle conflicts and reconcile differences among members.

After all, Jakarta took all diplomatic blunts before and in the aftermath of East Timor's independence (1999-2002) when it decided to bare all its shortcomings and called for wider cooperation from ASEAN members, especially in the formation of international peacekeeping forces.

Thailand was first to respond followed by Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. These ASEAN members participated in various peace initiatives proposed by Indonesia such as the proposed international peacekeeping operation, including Aceh, on its own without using the ASEAN flag. Another case in point was the joint effort by ASEAN and international community (2008-2010) in rehabilitating Myanmar in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis that was carefully framed as a humanitarian operation.

Lest the region forgets, as the ASEAN chair in 2003, Indonesia did a miraculous job in pushing for extensive reforms within ASEAN especially on common actions to promote shared norms and collective responsibility. Many good initiatives, unfortunately, mainly in political and security areas, were not taken into consideration even though they would propel ASEAN to the next level.

Eight years have passed. Now ASEAN has a charter, which is well over two years old. The question remains whether the ASEAN chair can initiate a new policy which was effectively endorsed by all ASEAN members which can then carry their flag. This time around, ASEAN will lose its credibility if it does not have any consensus in bringing the warring members conflict to a halt. Except Cambodia, no member countries would like to see this issue being taken up at the UNSC again.

Therefore, the Feb. 22 meeting will serve as a barometer for whether ASEAN really has what it takes to move forward as a rule-based organization — the most often cited virtue. Before the ASEAN Charter came to being at the end of 2008, every action inside ASEAN was voluntary without any enforcing or reprimanding mechanism. Members' goodwill and cooperative spirits were the key.

In that sense, the 43-year-old history of ASEAN does not have a successful story to tell on what they could do together and put into practice their commitments on more than two hundreds protocols and agreements.

But this time it could be different even though ASEAN has never chaired, let alone, engaged, in a full-blown dialogue process to manage or resolve intra-ASEAN conflict. ASEAN has received a clarion “call” from the council to help mediate the Thai-Cambodian conflict.

Obviously, the 15-member group realizes the complexity of the conflict so they jointly wanted to boost the role of regional and bilateral efforts. At present, the world's top body is too occupied with political turmoil and conflict around the world. So when opportunities arise, it will urge regional organizations to share the burden — doing what they can do to help out. It has been the case in Africa with the African Union playing a significant role in various peacekeeping and electoral operations.

Indeed, ASEAN is the last regional organization to be tasked by the council for such a purpose. Apart from the existing 1976 mechanism contained in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), ASEAN has yet to set up dispute settlement mechanisms within the grouping. Economic dispute mechanisms were put in place long ago — something that the ASEAN members have been using to address their economic grievances.

After the ASEAN Charter was adopted, the dispute mechanism was established last year but it is for any dispute regarding the charter and not the intra-ASEAN arms conflict.

It is hard to gauge ASEAN member's overall sentiments followed the council's briefings. Almost all members still prefer to see Thailand and Cambodia work out their differences bilaterally without resorting to outside forces. Deep down, they do not want to establish any precedence in which ASEAN serves as a mediator for an intra-ASEAN conflict or broader U.N. involvements because one day they could be parties to future conflicts.

When the problems of border demarcations between Malaysia and Singapore (Pedra Branca) on one hand and Malaysia and Indonesia (Sipadan and Ligitan) heated up, all of them readily bypassed the TAC and went straight to the International Court of Justice. All parties accepted the court's rulings.

It is hopeful given the pivotal juncture of its history, ASEAN would be able to convince its warring members to climb down and work together to end their conflicts with the support of ASEAN — whatever that might be in coming days.

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