Thailand Chairmanship of ASEAN

Thailand’s Chairmanship of ASEAN: Agenda,Challenges and Prospects

by Yajai Bunnag

The Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, organized a public forum on the topic ‘Thailand’s Chairmanship of ASEAN: Agenda, Challenges and Prospects’ on 13 August 2008. The aim of the forum was to review ASEAN developments, both from an insider and outsider’s point of view, and to brainstorm, and discuss, recommendations for Thailand’s role in further advancing this regional ‘community’ during its tenure as chairman. The panellists and audience included members of the academic community, the diplomatic community, the media, civil society and international organizations.

Prof. Dr. Charas Suwanmala (Dean, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University) gave the opening remarks and Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak (Director, ISIS) gave the introductory remarks. Both acknowledged that Thailand’s political crisis was not conducive toward its 18 month chairmanship of ASEAN during which it would host 3 ASEAN Summits. Bearing this in mind, it was recommended that the role of ISIS and the Department of ASEAN Affairs at the Foreign Ministry be promoted so that the 41 year old ASEAN could be consolidated and developed as a community. This community will be holistic as it will consist of an ASEAN Security Community (ASC), an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and an ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC)

The first speaker, Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn, spoke in his capacity as an adjunct fellow of ISIS and assistant group editor for the English language newspaper The Nation. He argued that we need to take account of the domestic political uncertainty and its impact on foreign policy, and that we can do so by considering three levels of entry. First, the national level, where we can increase awareness and understanding of ASEAN by encouraging participation in the community building process. Moreover, it was argued that we need better leadership at the national level, and a strong, consistent policy so as not to be at a disadvantage when it came to negotiating and implementing regional agreements. Second, the regional level, whereby we need to ensure that institutional changes set forth by the ASEAN Charter are implemented, and that they are implemented at a high standard. The ASEAN Community aims to be people-based and people-centred. In this regard, civil society should be encouraged and allowed to participate in the decision-making process. Third, the international level, where ASEAN needs to engage with and to give a bigger role to dialogue partners, who can provide ideas on a wide range of issues.

The second speaker, Prof. Vitit Muntabhorn, spoke in his capacity as advisor to ISIS and a professor of law, who has worked with the UN and with ASEAN on human rights. He referred to the aim of the ASEAN Charter to promote ‘one vision, one identity, one community,’ and added ‘in conformity with international law and international standards.’ For him, there are four angles of approach to realizing this aim. First, the national level, where parliament had to be persuaded toward ratification of the ASEAN Charter. At the time of this seminar, Prof Vitit said that ratification could be achieved by making the Charter more meaningful to the Thai people and by communicating the Charter to them. Second, the bilateral level, where one acknowledges that ASEAN does not neglect bilateralism and that there is a preference for bilateral resolutions to territorial and resource based disputes. Third, the regional level, where preparations need to be made for implementation of the ASEAN Charter and for more participation on the part of the people. With regard to the ASEAN human rights body, Prof Vitit called for no reinvention of the wheel. ASEAN has already signed many human rights agreements. Moreover, expectations of the human rights body should also be modest as ASEAN is not a human rights organization. According to the ASEAN Charter, the human rights body will promote and protect human rights. Thus, it must have a mandate to both promote and protect. Fourth, the multilateral level, ASEAN’s promotion and protection of human rights will boost its image, and facilitate engagement with the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Human rights records can be monitored through universal periodic reviews and officials working on human rights, such as Prof. Vitit, welcome advice from the Human Rights Council. Prof. Vitit concluded that the ASEAN Charter must be humanistic and that he would like to see a people’s assembly in ASEAN.

The third speaker, Mr. Robert W. Fitts, is director of the American Studies Program at ISIS and former US Ambassador to Papua New Guinea. He talked about ASEAN from an outsider’s point of view, about ASEAN-US relations and Thailand’s chairmanship of ASEAN. Ambassador Fitts noted that US Secretaries of State have attended ASEAN meetings since 1983, but that the US still emphasizes bilateralism in a region where the nation state remains dominant in the decision-making process. There are many developments in Asia and ASEAN needs to make the most of the situation in order to remain in the driver’s seat and not sidelined. Regional developments include the rise of China and India, and the increasing regional role of Japan and Russia. It was observed that there is less senior level US activity in ASEAN due to other priorities, such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Moreover, congress, pressure groups and the media have a big say in foreign policy. For this reason, President Bush had to talk about and to exert pressure on Myanmar during his visit to Bangkok in August 2008, even though it is a sensitive issue both for Thailand and ASEAN. In any case, Ambassador Fitts looked forward to a new US President, who will try to differentiate his foreign policy from that of the increasingly unpopular President Bush. It was predicted that this new US President will engage more with multilateralism. Ambassador Fitts believes that Thailand’s chairmanship depends on the extent of its nudging ASEAN toward greater cohesion, more short-term practical projects rather than long term institutional development, and less passivity on Myanmar.

The fourth speaker, Mr. Manasvi Srisodapol, is Deputy Director-General of the Department of ASEAN Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He presented the official view or foreign policy on ASEAN. There are altogether four challenges to ASEAN policy. First, the evolving regional architecture, the many regional frameworks, some ASEAN, some none ASEAN, was acknowledged. Second, economic integration: remaining development gaps, different target dates for different trade agreements and the ambitious aim for wider regional economic integration when ASEAN economic integration is still being consolidated. Third, security: there is still internal instability in ASEAN member countries, overlapping claims, threats posed by transnational non-traditional security issues, and the danger of conflict among the major powers who have interests in the region. Fourth, awareness and ownership: people are unaware of the benefits from ASEAN membership, they are excluded from the decision-making process and do not feel part of ASEAN. To mitigate these challenges, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has come up with the following aims: to implement the ASEAN Charter, to make the ASEAN Charter people-centred, to promote sustainable development, a rules based community, early warning and rapid response, as well as an outward looking ASEAN.

The public forum closed with a question and answer session. Questions were asked about how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs plans to restore Thailand’s leadership in ASEAN, the source of ASEAN’s agenda and the issue of Myanmar. It was noted that personal rapport among regional leaders through official visits have paved the way for Thailand’s chairmanship of ASEAN. ASEAN’s agenda is not so much dependent on the chair, as it is on developments at the national, regional and global level. It was argued that the agenda should include an aim for less paper work and more implementation, shared visibility and minimization of double standards. The forum concluded with the observation that the EU serves as an inspiration, not a model. ASEAN is looking to become a community, not a union that pools sovereignty.

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