By Kavi Chongkittavorn
Published on February 28, 2011
By hosting the informal Asean foreign ministerial meeting last week, the Asean chair, Indonesia, gave a historical lead that could gradually and tangibly transform the grouping into a true political and secure community.
It was a small step "with a giant leap of faith" as the creditability of Asean will now hinge on the outcome of bilateral talks between Thailand and Cambodia. The 90-minute meeting was brief - a rubber stamp of prior discussion and agreements the chair mapped out with both sides. It was contrary to the high-stake power games played out by the two protagonists in the previous weeks.
One of the great weaknesses of Asean has been its inability to cope with intra-Asean conflict in a forthright manner, as have the other regional organisations such as the African Union or Mercosur. Obviously, this stems from the reticent culture of Southeast Asia traditions and the ingrained fear of failure - a truly family psyche. Therefore, the ability to put up with inappropriate behaviour and non-compliance by members is pretty high. It is no surprise that Asean countries still prefer discreet and informal ways to deal with their internal squabbling minus the media fanfares. Just look back, almost all Asean disagreements in the past four decades - though, not as serious as the Thai-Cambodian dispute - were settled through casual and less structured meetings. In short, Asean does not want to Aseanise its disagreements.
This time around, the border clash has given a much-needed impetus for Asean to take up once a taboo issue - an intra-Asean conflict - in a more open way, even though the role of the Asean chair is strictly confined to a facilitator. The Asean foreign ministers often used the 'retreat' to discuss over-sensitive issues, particularly when members had not reached a solid consensus. In that sense, the Burmese political crisis has occupied the retreat's agenda the longest - for nearly two decades. With the Asean Charter in place over the past two years, the member countries are becoming more responsive towards the charter's mandates and objectives. By all means, nobody should get bogged down with the so-called "informal" or "retreat" framework. Whenever Asean leaders can draw up good results from these gatherings, it could be made official in no time.
Thailand and Cambodia know full well the onus is on them to honour and respect the Asean principles and norms enshrined in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and the Asean Charter. They also know the Asean mantra that members - in this case after a few days of arms skirmishes - do not go to war or declare a state of war perpetually. Thanks to Indonesia's leadership, the two members agreed to station the Indonesian observers at their respective borders. The tripartite group is currently still working out a viable modality. Experience and good practices from various peacekeeping operations in East Timor (1999-2000) and the cessation of hostilities monitoring mission in Aceh (2003) are useful references. A few Asean members, including Thailand, joined individually in both missions but financed their participation in the latter.
This is an important step as the Asean chair is performing this function - known as the "enhanced role of the Asean chair" - for the first time over an intra-Asean conflict. During the East Timor crisis, former Thai Foreign Minister Dr Surin Pitsuwan, acted as the chair of Asean and the Asean Regional Forum when he responded to Indonesia's appeal for peacekeeping assistance. Any misstep could send a wrong signal to hesitant Asean members and impact on the grouping's future political and security cooperation. Truth be told, Indonesia is extremely mindful of the presence of only two foreign ministers, Laos and Singapore, at last week's meeting, apart from the concerned countries. If the chair's new adventure achieves its intended purposes, their status within Asean, and Laos in particular, will be greatly augmented.
It remains to be seen how this dynamic will play out in the end. Initially, it is not difficult to predict that Indonesia will encounter a peaceful environment befitting the Asean spirit of cooperation as stated in the chairman's statement. In a similar vein, Thailand and Cambodia have demonstrated their readiness and determination to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity. At issue is: can the cessation of hostilities be sustained as the two sides work out their common solutions? After all, Indonesia has just another 10 months to serve in this role. What would happen next? Cambodia will succeed Indonesia as the Asean chair next year - it is also an electoral year there. Will Indonesia continue its current role beyond its chairmanship? In that case, would Jakarta take on a mediating role?
Indonesia's great leap of faith is also linked to its global agenda. Jakarta's desire and vision to prepare Asean as a single community with common vision and identity after 2015 to engage with the larger world, notably old and new major powers, is extremely ambitious. As a tangible step towards this noble object, Asean under the Indonesian chair must demonstrate its ability to contain and manage efficiently any intra-Asean conflict without resorting to a bigger international arena. Otherwise, overall Asean creditability would falter.
Over a decade ago, Indonesia showed the way. Jakarta had the courage to wash its dirty linen in East Timor for all to see and indeed set forth an unheralded political precedence in Asean - balancing international manoeuvrability with regional solidarity and limited leadership found in individual Asean members. That left behind a good legacy in East Timor and Aceh. In the process, Indonesia's confidence and international profile also was further promoted. Somehow, Jakarta was not able to jump-start such an effort to inculcate this noble approach. The expanded Bali Concord II was the compromise that the Asean members would concur with - obviously commensurate to Indonesia's overall status at the time.
The next ten months will serve as a barometer on two pivotal regional developments. First and foremost, it has to do with the rise of Indonesia - a far cry from 2003 - as a regional power with global influence. Any resumption of Thai-Cambodian hostilities could immediately undermine Jakarta's unique position. Second, it will demonstrate if Asean really has the mettle to deal with internal conflict. One caveat is in order: whatever the outcome,in the long-run it would also have a ripple effect on succeeding chairs. If there was a precedence set forth at the Jakarta meeting, it was essentially the ability of family members to settle their own conflicts themselves. If the UN Security Council has to take up the Thai-Cambodian border again, it would mean a big slap in Asean's face and further hamper the realisation of Asean as a political and secure community.