Truth be told, the current Asean leaders do not have the kind of mutual understanding and comfort level of their predecessors, who made Asean such a formidable organisation over its first three decades. Those early figures were connected and shared the same wavelength.
The Nation May 4, 2015 1:00 am
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s tweet from Langkawi Island – “Waiting to take a traditional #ASEAN leaders’ photo but someone’s missing. #guesswho”- went viral. Indeed, it served as a trailer for the intrigue among Asean leaders that outsiders were not aware of.
The best thing the Asean senior officials can do today is to ensure their leaders meet as little as possible. They do not want to expose their leaders to uncertain or unknown issues. It has been embarrassing already to have them read straight from prepared statements, with or without English translation, instead of engaging in fresh discussion. Lively exchanges of views have been long absent in Asean meetings.
After the Asean Charter came into effect in December 2008, as a rule-based organisation, everybody from the top down and bottom up has had to work harder. The Asean leaders will meet twice a year and their foreign ministers will meet even more, wearing several hats to lead Asean discussions, including those attended by dialogue partners. The 625-million-strong Asean is also pushing its claim to rights empowered by the charter.
Over the past six years, the leaders have proved quite willing to discuss ways to maintain and enhance peace and security in the region, as well as the grouping’s external relations. However, they were suddenly at a loss for words when sensitive topics surfaced related to “strengthening democracy, enhancing good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedom”.
It must be noted here that Thailand’s political situation from 2008-14 was on the Asean agenda and became one of the most hotly debated topics. The grouping also issued several statements appealing for peace and stability and calling all parties concerned to resolve turmoil through “dialogue and consultations in a peaceful and democratic manner.” However, it was the Yingluck government that pressured Asean colleagues to issue four statements on the domestic situation, much to the chagrin of new Asean members.
After the 23rd Asean Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan in 2013, the idea of streamlining two summits annually into one at the end of the year became a priority. The problem had to do with the Asean Charter, which required two summits annually. After all, the charter is over five years old and should be placed under review. However, quite a few members have resisted the idea, fearing it could open a Pandora’s Box leading to other unintended amendments. So the leaders decided that when Laos chairs Asean next year, there would be two summits held back to back in November to avoid going against the charter.
When the Asean leaders meet at their summits, they have about two hours of exchanged speeches, including official opening statements. The retreat session was a better occasion to discuss issues seriously and less formally. But that was often not the case. The leaders tended to follow their senior officials’ recommendations. There is a provision in the Asean charter that states Asean leaders would be able to take whatever decision they deemed necessary. So far, they have been extremely cautious.
During the first three decades of Asean, the grouping’s leaders had a better rapport and understanding of each other. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Indonesia’s Suharto, Philippines’ Fernando Marcos and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad got along fine – despite their tempers and disagreements. Former Thai prime minister General Prem Tinsulanonda, who held the position for nearly a decade throughout the 1980s, enjoyed a similar rapport with those leaders. They were able to converse and get the message across to one another. Their solidarity was on fully display during the 3rd Asean summit in Manila in December 1987 to support the besieged President Corazon Aquino, amid tight security due to threats of local extremists. That kind of camaraderie is no longer there.
After the grouping’s enlargement between 1995-1999, exchange of views among the leaders has become more mundane and structured. Little has improved since then. There have been no real exchanges of views. The leader who broke the stereotype and had the confidence to speak out was Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, the region’s longest-reigning prime minister. As a veteran, he has a good grasp of issues affecting Asean. At the Asean-US Summit in Nay Pyi Taw last year, he took US President Barrack Obama to task on US policy towards Syria and demanded clarification. Although Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei Darrusalam was more senior within Asean, the Sultan seldom spoke out.
Given the growing complexity of transnational issues involved, the Asean leaders should meet and consult each other more, not less. Otherwise, the grouping’s response to crisis and emergencies could be hampered. Major powers are also challenging Asean and testing its resolve to come up with common positions. Failure to do so would encourage them to be more assertive and could lead to a “divide and rule” strategy.
Pressing transnational issues related to climate change and fighting against extremists are some of the litmus tests on whether Asean has got what it takes. Today, the much-heralded Asean centrality must be earned and manifested through well-coordinated views and actions – only the Asean leaders could do that.