MYANMAR (Eleven Media Group/Asia News Network): A united ideology can elevate Asean to better manage the superpower rivalry, regional crises, and meet the aspirations of its citizens, said two Thai regional experts.
Both Kasit Piromya, former Foreign Minister, and Supalak Ganjanakhundee, independent researcher, advocate “liberal democracy” as a new shared belief for Asean and which, they say, is the only option to bring peace and stability back to crisis-hit Myanmar.
Both were speaking at the third Thai foreign policy webinar series on “Asean’s Future and Crisis in Myanmar” last Thursday, jointly hosted by the Surin Pisuwan Foundation, Chiang Mai University’s School of Public Policy, Thai PBS and Asia News Network. The session was moderated by Faudi Pisuwan from SPF.
The other two panelists were Kavi Chongkittavorn, former editor of Myanmar Times, and Sirada Khemanitthathai, from the Faculty of Political Science at Chiang Mai University.
Kasit pushed the conventional wisdom that Asean was founded 54 years ago based on “regional security interests” to one of joint ideology or common belief to oppose communism and the domino theory.
“Now, it’s under stress. It is being squeezed on two fronts. One is the ideology and political systems at the extreme ends of the two superpowers. The other is the pressure on Asean leaders, from the bottom up, of its citizens who aspire to live in a society which is free and has rights.”
He said liberal democracy is the only option going forward for the 10-member Asean, if it wants to remain relevant in the global affairs.
The view from Kasit, a former Thai Foreign Ministry official turned politician, was echoed by Supalak, who proposed that Thailand should launch what he termed as “complex engagement” to help Asean resolve the crisis in Myanmar.
Such a complex engagement with Myanmar would involve non-coercion, open exchange in dialogue with all stakeholders and, most importantly, shared liberal values of “free politics, free market and guaranteed the rights of the people”.
“These values must be embedded in our foreign policy to address these issues,” said Supalak, who was a former editor of The Nation.
Sirada welcomed Asean’s omission of Myanmar’s ruling military leader from the recent summit as setting a new standard for the bloc.
Kavi said Asean should be commended for surviving for 50 plus years from the Cold War era, economic crises, SARS and now for pursuing post-Covid-recovery and efforts to end the crisis in Myanmar.
He added that Asean members have been intervening among the members all the time, but that may not in a way that many understand.
“For Thailand, it has many limitations but it’s our strong point. If we’re too open we will end up with many enemies.”
Kasit said the reinvention of Asean, as well as Thailand’s role, have not been sufficiently scrutinised or debated. He divided the life of the regional bloc into three periods, with each linked to ideology or common belief.
The first was the founding in 1967, with a common vision to oppose communism and not to accept the domino theory. This proved an enormous success, with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and Asean gained global recognition.
The second was the emerging modern global connectivity and then globalisation. Asean joined the globalisation process under global rules, especially under the WTO, and Asean shared a common aspiration to become the regional production hub, central to the supply chain.
In parallel, Asean sought to achieve peaceful co-existence by ending regional conflicts. As a result, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia entered the bloc, bringing the membership to 10, he said.
The members came together to develop the master plan on connectivity, comprising the likes of cross border facilitation, a common market of a sort, acceptance of professional certifications, from medicine to accountancy. The results were free flows of money and workers, merchandise and services.Asean or its leaders now have binding obligation to decide upon the bloc’s role. Asean is also bound by its obligations to the UN on human rights, children, political set up, said Kasit, adding that none of these issues prevailed in 1967 or 1991.
Now, it has obligation toward democracy and a people centered policy through its conduct, as well as those with the UN. There is an obligation to the people, who are tired of authoritarian rule, whether through personalities, such as former Filipino president Marcos, or military, like former Indonesian president Suharto or many of the former Thai prime ministers, said Kasit.
All these played out in Asean’s disunited response to the Myanmar crisis. “Now it is about democracy and rights of the people. The split developed, following the Feb 1 coup in Myanmar, between the conservatives, led by Asean members such as Brunei and the majority authoritarianism of the Philippines, and Thailand, to a lesser extent, or one-party rule, such as Singapore, although it has excellent governance.”
Kasit said he and several of his Asean and international political colleagues, including Cambodia’s political opposition in exile Sam Rainsy, have come together to propose a revolution in the structure of Asean.
In the past 50 years, Asean has had few membership conditions compared to the EU, which stipulates that all members must be under a democratic system, observe the rights of the people and practice good governance. Asean doesn’t have more than a charter and its UN commitments. “Now, with the choice between China and the open societies of the US, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, these become imperative as a choice,” he advocated.
“So we have to think how to rebuild Asean as a democratic society i.e. all members given 10 years to become a democracy, a charter revamp, so it serves democratic values and practices, such as an Asean judicial court, Asean Parliament, like the EU Parliament, and an Asean civil platform, to check on rules and regulations,” proposed Kasit.
Without deepening structure and unity, the Thai diplomat said Asean will not be able to solve the Myanmar type of crisis, as it will not be able to agree on major issues, only smaller ones. It will not be able to penalize or sanction members who have committed a major violation.
“This comes down to the need to have a joint ideology toward democracy,” he concluded.
Asean should also redefine the three major agreements it has signed, to help in managing the superpower rivalry. They include the treaty of amity and cooperation, nuclear free zone and zone of peace and freedom.
These would assist in Asean’s centrality, on the likes of Quad and AUKUS, “which currently are flying over our heads and we don’t know how to position ourselves.”
Asean is known to have conducted quiet diplomacy on crises over the years in and among the member countries. This includes Aceh and East Timo.
“As regional issues have implications and spillover effects on Asean unity and its image,” he added.