Wednesday, April 27, 2011

ASEAN must show its worth as a regional authority

As the border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia drags on, the regional grouping should give full support to Indonesian observers

In less than two weeks, Indonesia will host the first of a series of high-profile summit meetings over the next seven months before its Asean chairmanship ends. It is within this short time frame that Indonesia's leadership credentials in the regional grouping will be tested.

Jakarta has set out with a very big ambition to transform Asean into a global game-changer - something no other Asean member has so far dared to think of.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa offers hope to the new Asean because of his intellect and vitality. Indonesia's move to forge a more integrated and significant Asean also occurs at a time when there is a domestic consolidation of democracy and steady economic progress.

For the past few months, the world's third largest democracy has been trying to pursue several objectives set forth at the beginning of the year. One of them is to prepare Asean for the 2015 deadline for regional economic integration. Asean aims to be a single economic community with over 700 million citizens by that date.

Indonesia - now an emerging global player - wants to ensure that Asean will not be left behind and that the grouping's voice will be heard on the international stage.

However, the ongoing dispute between Thailand and Cambodia is threatening the leadership credentials of the current Asean chair and its overall outlook.

Since February, and following deliberations by the UN Security Council, Indonesia has been tasked by the Asean foreign ministers with finding a solution to ensure a permanent ceasefire on the Thai-Cambodian border. Overall progress has been slow.

But Jakarta knew full well that this would be the case before it took up the challenge. Indeed, there is nothing new in such time-consuming diplomatic efforts within the Asean mindset. To be fair, it is not the fault of the chair either. In Asean, nothing moves forward if there is no consensus. Political will among the member countries and their leaders is the most important ingredient in ending an international deadlock involving Asean members. That explains why sometimes it is so frustrating to see members, for their own benefit, exploiting each other without thinking of Asean's wider interests.

Both Thailand and Cambodia have to work harder to help the Asean chair in its peace mission. Otherwise, Indonesia's greater ambition for the grouping could be easily wrecked.
The renewed fighting between Thai and Cambodian troops on the border this week does not augur well at all for the overall solidarity of Asean or Indonesia's ongoing facilitation process and wider goals. Thailand must finalise its terms of reference as soon as possible concerning the stationing of the Indonesian observers at the border. The Thai Army has dragged its feet for too long. Certainly, when it comes to national sovereignty, the Thai Army is very conservative and sensitive, especially where the presence of outside observers is concerned.

Cambodia, under strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, has been a one-stop decision country in this affair - which has proved to be its best bargaining and PR asset.

Civil society and media in Cambodia do not have the kind of freedoms enjoyed by their neighbours to the west. Hun Sen's words are final. No questions are asked or comments made. It is not wrong to say he has been the region's most active leader in engaging Asean in every aspect.

It remains to be seen how Asean members will respond to Hun Sen's suggestion that the grouping should get involved more in intra-Asean conflicts - something that would change the very nature of Asean since its inauguration. Cambodia, which succeeds Indonesia as chair next year, will certainly seek to enhance its regional role and prestige through such an agenda.

It is in the grouping's common interest to support Indonesia as chair, as it will propel the grouping to the next level. An Asean that is in tune with global changes and settings will benefit the whole regional community. Editorial, The Nation, Bangkok

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