By Kavi Chongkittavorn
Published on February 14, 2011
Asean's often claimed political utopia, that its members had never fought an open war was shattered to smithereens during the three-day (February 4-6) fighting along the Thai-Cambodian border.
Prime Minister Hun Sen even went as far as to declare it a real war, which has unwittingly placed the Asean leaders and their organisation under the world's microscope. He has opened a Pandora's box for Asean. Now, all together, they have to find ways to smooth out these troubled relations. Otherwise, the grouping's creditability in the global arena will be severely undermined.
The attention this week will be focused on briefings at UN Headquarters in New York by foreign ministers of the warring parties, Kasit Piromya and Hor Nam Hong, and their results. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, current Asean rotating Chair, will be there as well to provide Asean views and to ensure after the meeting there would emerge a consensus or two, which the Asean chair can later utilise to facilitate further the peace process to end hostilities.
Obviously, it is rare for Asean warring parties to appear so readily at the UNSC. The last time Asean involved at the UN was on the burning issue of East Timor in 1999. Burma, although an Asean member, has been an "international issue" of longer standing. Since 2008, Cambodia has always wanted to raise the border fighting with the UN platform, but they were not successful. However, this time, with intense fighting and heavy artillery exchanges, quite a few UNSC members expressed concerns over renewed hostilities and decided to call for a meeting. The current composition of the UNSC, comprising new emerging powers, allows a new dynamism that permits the Thai-Cambodian clashes to be discussed. However, the outcome of UNSC briefings and deliberations—possibly through a presidential statement-- are non-binding.
Marty knows the trend. His call for a "brief, urgent and informal" meeting with his Asean counterparts on February 22 in Jakarta is indeed an anticipation of a mandate for the UNSC for Asean, under his leadership, to take up the same "regional" responsibility. It was an open secret that during his "shuttle diplomacy" he had been in close touch with both members of the UNSC and the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In a nutshell, the informal gathering will follow up on the UNSC meeting and what Asean can do next to mitigate further conflict and salvage the grouping's reputation. A more systematic approach to conflict resolution and dispute settlements as outlined in the Asean Charter, as well as those contained in the Asean Political and Security Community blueprint, will be discussed and put into practice.
Indeed, Marty is well in position to take up this formidable challenge. He knows the UN system like the back of his hands, having served there before taking up the current ministerial position. He is a respectable and world-class diplomat with friends aplenty at the UN top echelon, especially the current president UNSC Ambassador Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti from Brazil. With abundant UN experience, connections and diplomatic skills, he can speak on behalf of Asean and the UNSC will listen. He will certainly win support from all the council members to bring the matter back to existing regional mechanisms. Despite their confrontation, Thailand and Cambodia have agreed to use the MOU 2000 and Joint Border Committee as a basis of their negotiations. Now with the ball in Asean's court, its members need to find common solutions that augur well with the Asean norms and practices.
Asean Secretary-General Dr Surin Pitsuwan understood the situation well when he released a statement early last week that the discussion at the UN represents an evolution in Asean's efforts to resolve bilateral disputes among members under the Asean Charter. He reiterated that the meeting would set a precedent for future Asean dispute settlement mechanisms.
As such, it is the most ironic development in Asean history to have Cambodia as the catalyst. Both Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong have been engaging with the UN authorities at all levels—both as friends and foes—for more than three decades. Throughout the 1980's, Asean fought hard with them to push out foreign troops to attain peace in the war-torn country. Asean dispatched its tripartite team to Phnom Penh in 1998 to help work out a political stand-off before its admission into Asean a year later.
Indeed, modern Cambodia is the product of longstanding UN peace efforts and dividends—the most cited UN success - during the 1990's followed the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991. UN sponsored elections in 1993 saw the unstoppable rise of Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party as well as other opposition leaders. As of today, however, these opposition leaders are all living in exile including Sam Rainsey. The only credible voice to monitor the government and its ruling party these days are the burgeoning civil society organisations, which are currently under threat by a new NGO law.
What will be the perceived future role of Asean in peace and conflict issues? As chair, Indonesia is in a delicate situation. If previous efforts to mediate and end conflict within Asean were any guide, Asean members would remain extremely cautious. Jakarta did not succeed when it tried to mediate the Burmese crisis in 2008 even at the leaders' level. Bangkok encountered a similar problem when its proposal on the amnesty of Dawn Aung San Suu Kyi was backed by only half the members during its chair in 2009.
In recent international security issues, the UNSC often makes use of its Article 52 of the UN Charter to share burdens and delegate responsibility to existing "regional arrangements"--for instance, the African Union in Sudan, NATO in Kosovo and Afghanistan, the Organisation of American States (OAS) in Haiti. Ironically, a long standing common aversion for anything UN and anything collective within Asean has to be revised by the requirement of the Asean Charter, which cross-references itself to the UN Charter. In particular, Article 22-23 and 28 of the Asean Charter must be read in light of, or in conjunction with Article 52-53 of the UN Charter, in which the 1945 founding document clearly calls for the world body to work in collaborating "existing regional arrangements" in the maintenance of peace and security.
In the final analysis, Asean has been brought to this "reality show" by its mercurial member, who would force Asean to measure up to what Marty calls "the expectation of the international community." One big question is in order: Is Asean ready to become a pro-active, forward-looking organisation which could expose individual members to outside scrutiny and eventually erode the principle of non-interference and consensus making?