A New ASEAN with a new Secretary-General and new Charter?

Updated On: Jun 22, 2007

If all go according to plans, former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan will become the next ASEAN Secretary-General starting from 1 January 2008, replacing the incumbent Ong Keng Yong.

Surin is a Muslim from the Southern provinceof Nakorn Srithammarat. He had previously proposed ASEAN members drop the non-intervention policy and adopt ‘flexible engagement’ though he failed. Nonetheless, expectations on him will be high given that he will be the first Secretary-General of ASEAN under the new Charter.

In his interview with the Bangkok Post (21 June), he pointed to the need for ASEAN to raise its profile in the international arena as well as the need for the people of ASEAN to ‘feel a sense of belonging, ownership and participation.’

While the position of the next Secretary-General has been decided, the Charter is still under negotiation. One of the contention is over the inclusion of human rights mechanism in the Charter. Some states likeMyanmar and Singapore are not keen to include the clause while Indonesia is keen for the inclusion of human rights and democratic principles in the Charter.

Ikrar Nusa Bakti of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences said it was time Indonesia, the biggest country in the region, took the lead in fighting for values in which it believes and practices. He said, “I thinkIndonesia now is the most democratic country in ASEAN. We should not let ourselves be bogged down by other ASEAN members. It's time to show our firmness and greatness.”

While the Indonesians debate whether a strong Charter is better than a weak Charter (even if the former will take a longer time), the Thais are warning that any delay in the economic integration of ASEAN will have severe consequences. The Thai Commerce permanent secretary Karun Kittisataporn warned that any delay to the implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) would result in ASEAN being overshadowed by other regional states such as ChinaIndiaand South Korea. Foreign direct investment into ASEAN has already decreased sharply from US$33 billion in 1997 to $21 billion in 2004.

Elsewhere, in an ASEAN tourism congress held in Cebu, the Philippines, experts warned that promoting Asia or ASEAN as a brand might not be optimal. This is because if ASEAN is marketed as one common destination, if one state, say the Philippines, is affected by adverse publicity, the negative publicity might put tourists off the whole region.  Therefore, Shannon Sweeney, editor for CEI Asia Pacific inHong Kong, suggested that the Asian states have individual brands instead of a collective one. This is not to say that they should not cooperate in promoting the region. For instance, ASEAN is already working towards having a single ASEAN visa to integrate the tourism market.

One other pressing issue that some of the ASEAN members have been discussing over the past few days is the forest fires and transboundary haze problems. The Indonesians have expressed their commitment to cut down the hot spots, and the past few months, have seen concerted efforts to address the problem, helped by the rain. While the other neighbouring states are keen to help Indonesians in any way to implement both preventive and curative measures to control the fires and haze problems, Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kabat has expressed reservations that foreign aid could violate the country’s sovereignty and hence the Indonesian government would examine carefully every offer of overseas assistance or cooperation.  Such attitude does not augur well for ASEAN cooperation.   (21 June 2007)


On The Record; Surin Ready for Top Job (BangkokPost, 21 June 2007)

Delays to AEC hit investment(Nation, 20 June 2007)

Singaporeand Malaysiaupdate Asean haze plans(Straits Times, 20 June 2007)

ThailandNominates Surin For ASEAN Sec-Gen Post (Bernama, 19 June 2007)

Haze in two weeks' time?(ChannelNewsAsia, 19 June 2007)

RI ready for forest fires, but adverse to foreign help(Jakarta Post, 18 June 2007)

Doubts raised on One Asia brand(Philippines News Agency, 18 June 2007)

Indonesiaholds ground on ASEAN Charter(Jakarta Post, 15 June 2007)