Asean’s outgoing Secretary General Dr Surin Pitsuwan discusses the burning issues at the heart of a diverse region
Photography by Sam Jam
Dr Surin Pitsuwan will leave his office in December after heading Asean for five years. For most observers, the 63-year-old Muslim, with Thai-Malay heritage and an impressive academic and political career, has been an ideal appointment to oversee the integration of the group of nations. During his tenure, Asean has become a major player on the global stage with many of its member countries achieving record economic growth, Myanmar has begun a process of democratisation and the region has integrated further as an economic community. At the same time, democracy and human rights have taken a battering in some parts of the ten-member bloc.
In Southeast Asia Globe’s exclusive interview with Dr Surin, we hand the floor to regional experts, who quiz Asean’s top man about the state of the union.
Michael Plummer – Eni Professor of International Economics, the John Kopkins University, Sais-Bologna
What are the biggest challenges facing Asean in leading the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and fostering ‘Asean Centrality’ in trade and other domains?
Well, in Asean, as within many other regional organisations or within regional trade agreements, we are unfortunately running into a psychology of resistance or self-defence. Europe and America have been in difficult economic times for a while now, and we are rebalancing our economy to create demand for higher consumption inside our member countries, inside the region. Some member states, but also large international markets, are taking measures against opening up, against imports, and that is the psychology that we have to break through.
An ‘equitable economic region’ is a noble goal that has been embraced via various initiatives, from the Initiative for Asean Integration to the Asean Economic Community. However, it is not an easy goal to achieve, as is clear from the European experience. What should Asean’s priorities be?
Infrastructure. Our dialogue partners, whether from Asia, Europe or America, know that if Asean continues as a two-tier regional grouping, they will not reach the region’s 600 million consumers. So for their own good, they are helping us in every which way they can. Connectivity is important in turning businesses into a success at an Asean level. The other area is human resources. I have said to many of our members that they have to learn the language of the market, and that language of the market is investment for profit. You can detest profit making, but people come to invest because they want to make money. The necessity is to create mechanisms that would enable more foreign investment, to safeguard foreign investment, increase confidence, strengthen the intellectual property regime and ease the transfer of capital in and out. Transparency and the rule of law are extremely important. A lack of transparency and rule of law means no confidence, no investment, no invention, no innovation. If there is no protection of intellectual property rights, there won’t be any transfer of technology into that market. Now, Asean member states have to think very carefully about how to manage the goodwill, this enthusiasm for the region, and I think the sooner they do that, the better.
John Brinsden – Vice Chairman, Acleda Bank
How will the increasing assertiveness of China and the US in Asia affect the position of Asean?
Well, it shows that we need much more solidarity in every area, not only economically, but also politically and security wise. We need to work on socio-cultural connectivity too, and increase cooperation here further because we want to create an identity for Asean… We have been in existence for 45 years, but in the past this region has never attracted as much attention as today. The potential of East Asia, the new status as a new growth centre has certainly led to many consequences. One is the competition and the rivalry of major external powers within the region. We have to handle that, we have to manage it.
How will Asean achieve its goal to become a unified economic community, given the disparate economies and interests within its individual member countries?
We have to be realistic. We go about this through laws, through regulations, by convincing member states that they must deliver upon commitments. Member states are already resorting to dispute mechanism procedures that we have in place and are going to extend… to encourage member states to deliver on their commitments. I am glad to say that there is a new culture of conformity. These things cannot be achieved overnight.
Muhammad Afif Bin Mansoor – Southeast Asian Studies student, The National University of Singapore
How can Asean aid poorer nations to develop at the same rate as other, more developed nations?
Through human resource development and better infrastructure. Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are opening up their classrooms, their institutes to provide human resource training for other, less developed member states. This is to help, and to be taken advantage of. The language of capital, of investment, is to make profit… We have to know what is the driving force behind private sector investment into Asean. Investors look for opportunities. In the next ten years, East Asia will need $600 billion for hard infrastructure; a large chunk of that will be used in both continental and maritime Southeast Asia. China and Japan are very much committed to making sure that maritime Asean is connected, and that the free flow of products and services across borders and waters is facilitated.
Dr Nicholas Farrelly – Research fellow, School of International, Politcal and Strategic Studies, the Australian National University
Many Thais and investors are concerned about the possibility of a long phase of political instability when His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej is no longer on the throne. What is being done to secure Thailand’s ambitions of becoming an Asean economic hub?
Thailand has to achieve its own internal reconciliation. As far as I know, all engines and relevant personalities are trying their best to achieve a new balance within the system. It has taken some time, and it has taken a toll on Thailand’s image and profile. Everybody is now realising that the cost of that instability is high. Yet, in economic terms, the country is very strong. Following massive natural disasters such as last year’s floods… there must be some ingenuity, creativity or simply survival instinct here, which continually helps it move ahead.
Phil Robertson – Deputy Asia Director, Human Rights Watch
What is Asean prepared to do to forge an agreement to protect migrant workers’ rights that applies to all migrant workers, and obligates states to protect them?
This is a big issue, and Asean discussed this early in the decade… Sending countries, like the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, are very aware of the welfare of their people, while the receiving countries, such as Singapore, Malaysia, are also aware of the fact that these people are an essential part of their economies and their growth. So there is a consensus that we will establish a legal framework and institutions. In fact, there is already an agreement on the interest and the protection of migrant workers. There must be some rationality in managing foreign workers.
Despite promises by some member states that the Asean Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) must be fully compliant with international human rights standards, the reality is that the current AHRD draft falls short in a number of areas. Should Asean call on its member states to go back and work further on this to bring it up to international standards? And if it does not, won’t Asean be undermining international human rights standards?
Asean works on consensus, and the minimum level of achievement or improvement may not be ideal, but it has to go step by step. Once there is an official institution like the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights that works on this declaration, it will improve, and certainly there is room for improvement. Yes, there are issues such as national law, national sovereignty, national interest, societal interest, morality, etc… but we have to accept the fact that this is a very diverse region. We can’t have everything in one go. Once people and governments assume the rhetoric of democracy and human rights, there will be momentum, there will be a life of its own, there will be a give and take dialogue, there will be conversation. The AHRD draft is not as wide as we would wish it to be, but it has taken a long time to have it where it is today. It will evolve further.
Muslim-majority states such as Indonesia and Malaysia are pressing hard for an end to discrimination and deprivation of citizenship for the Rohingya in Myanmar. And now the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has been dis-invited. What can Asean do to improve the situation in Arakan state?
I think the space for Asean to act here is in humanitarian assistance. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, we went there and stayed for over two years and helped to stabilise the region – four million people benefited from our engagement. Also the OIC has been rather active. But, let me take a pause here: I don’t think it is an issue of Muslims or non-Muslims. Ultimately, this is a democracy issue and a human rights issue, and the global community must be engaged in order to help find a resolution to the problem. This is also very much an issue of national reconciliation in Myanmar.
How can Asean ensure this issue does not cause a rift between Buddhist Myanmar and other members of Asean, like Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia?
I am concerned that this may lead to some tensions, which is not good for anybody. Just imagine if the Rohingya are radicalised because they have no recourse, no resolution? It would affect the whole region; it would even affect the Malacca straits. A solution must be offered, but Asean can only do this much to help.
In 2014, Asean will be chaired by Myanmar for the first time. What human rights issues will Asean be prepared to take up with Myanmar’s leadership in the preparations for 2014 so that Asean is not embarrassed again by the poor human rights record of its chair?
Well, I think Myanmar realises that when Asean member states agreed to endorse Myanmar to chair Asean in 2014, they made this on the condition that no reversal in the opening up of Myanmar, in the reforms, in the reconciliation would happen. And the record so far has shown that the country is going about the reforms rather effectively, to the surprise of a lot of people. I have communicated with them personally that, when you are the chair, it is not only the number of flights coming into Naypyidaw or Yangon that matters, but that the whole year you have to accommodate the international media because you are the chair of Asean. So the rule of law, the media law, the space for civil society and various other issues will have to be put in place to become a reconciled state. Myanmar will have to shoulder a lot of responsibility, and I believe they are working on it.