COM 03/2019

Discussion with former Foreign Ministers of Thailand, H. E. Kasit Piromya, and of Indonesia, H. E. Marty Natalegawa, and Dr Frederick Kliem, Visiting Fellow at RSiS, on the topic of Thailand’s ASEAN Chairmanship 2019, Part One


The discussion was recorded at CPG’s International Conference on Thailand’s ASEAN Chairmanship 2019. This is the first part of the discussion with the second part to follow in the next issue of COM! The following text keeps most of the original audio and has only been lightly edited for smoother reading.


Dr Kliem: Dear Excellencies, to begin, I would like to ask you first to comment on a very interesting discussion I had recently. I was told by a long-time ASEAN observer and expert that, in the 1970s, when he joined the foreign service in Singapore, when you travelled around the region and said ASEAN, all that people would think is that you did not know how to spell Asian. This suggests, as anecdotal evidence maybe, that people did not know much about ASEAN and awareness was very low.  This has changed significantly over the past years. I would like to ask you to reflect a bit on ASEAN in the past 30 years, very briefly, and perhaps, reflect on its achievements and why the situation has changed – how did people actually realise what ASEAN is and how has ASEAN achieved this?

H.E. Kasit Piromya: I joined the ministry of Foreign Affairs in Thailand in 1968, about 6-12 months after the inception of ASEAN. At that time, one of the founding fathers of ASEAN was still the Foreign Minister of Thailand, Dr Thanat Khoman. What was the context – Marty did mention it a lot, in various chapters of his recent book, that at that time, there was a “danger of communism”. Second, there was internal conflict or dispute as a result of the colonial legacies: provinces in Northern Malaysia and in Southern Thailand were being cut off, families were being cut off from one another. And that also goes for the Thai-Cambodia border, Cambodia-Laos border, Thailand-Laos border and so on. And I think I would even include the situation on Kalimantan-Borneo island. There were border disputes, rising nationalism, the strong feeling for independence and sovereignty. The situation was marked by challenges from communism, ideology, internal conflicts, confrontations (confrontasi) and so on. The vision that we adopted was common, together with foreign ministers and leaders, we said that Southeast Asian countries would not go on in that way, having conflicts with one another and trying to survive in challenges forthcoming from communism and at the same time, struggling with nation state building, and finding unity and compromise even inside each of the countries. Countries asked what types of politics it would have to have in order to survive and develop, and stand tall and firm in the midst of all that chaos. Then, Dr Thanat and his colleagues, the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines were able to forge a consensus, and began with ASEAN. Since all of the original five were anti-communists, development assistance and support was forthcoming from the Western world. It was a dual approach of a sort of economic integration with polity alliances. So the Philippines and Thailand were partners first. I think Singapore, Malaysia and later Brunei joined our arrangement with the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Indonesia took a bit of an independent stance because it cherished, very much, its independence and the fight for independence was much more traumatic than in the other original ASEAN countries. So Indonesia became one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned. We [Thailand] would have joined Indonesia at that, but there was a left of centre government being kicked out. Since then, we kept experiencing military intervention in politics, to this very day. But Indonesia, in spite of non-alliance, had cordial, and at times, positive relationship with the United States and Australia and so on. I think that since the 1967 inception of ASEAN, we had more joint focal points and we even tried to coordinate some of the joint positions on regional and international issues.

H. E. Marty Natalegawa: Between the 1970s and today, the awareness of ASEAN is no doubt, far more enhanced compared to the past. There is certainly far more awareness nowadays amongst global nations about ASEAN compared to the past. If one were to ask the question of how relevant is ASEAN to one’s daily activities, then many would be a little bit more challenged in how to describe or manifest ASEAN’s actual contributions. They are more aware of its existence, but it would probably be more difficult for members of the public to speculate or suggest this is how ASEAN has been relevant or has mattered to them. I think this is where in raising awareness about ASEAN, it must not be simply about brand awareness, it must be coupled and followed with listing benefits ASEAN has brought to populations in the region. At the risk of over-simplification, I thought to point out certain things. First, it is certainly important how ASEAN transformed relationships among SEA countries, previously one of animosity and tensions, to one with a sense of community, where the use of force is very much set aside. Second, the notion of the centrality of region, a topic that many of you have discussed previously and how ASEAN’s position in the wider region has become more enhanced. Third, of course a more people-centred ASEAN in not only the economic domain, but also very much in the inter-governance domain as well. In other words, it is not sufficient for us to be at rest that awareness has been raised, but we need to have better comprehension of how ASEAN has mattered and how it has been relevant.

But of course, compared to the 1970s, nowadays, people are much more aware of ASEAN, but at the same time, there are other things to attract people’s attention. ASEAN must compete with all these other interests and other developments and hence, it is even more important for ASEAN to demonstrate its relevance. I think that the theme of our discussion, the notion of leadership in the region becomes extremely important because almost at every critical juncture of ASEAN’s development, the leaders of ASEAN must demonstrate not only vision, but also the requisite leadership to translate or transform these visions into reality. The ASEAN founding itself in 1967, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) in 1976, the expansion of ASEAN beyond ASEAN 5 to ASEAN 10, the greater sense of cohesion of ASEAN’s external outlook notwithstanding the variation of foreign policy orientations that all ASEAN member states have, from former countries of ASEAN 5 and the others, and many other important points and transformation experiences took place because of the exercise of requisite leadership. Absent such leadership, inevitably, there will be a sense of drift, some of us I heard yesterday described a sense of passiveness in the face of geopolitical shifts and changes. How do we go beyond raising awareness of ASEAN’s existence and demonstrate relevance so that people feel invested in ASEAN’s project and consider ASEAN to matter for them in their lives?

Dr Kliem: I would like to pick up on this leadership concept and discuss the “relevance issue” a bit. This morning, we had a panel discussion on the national-regional nexus, and I was struck by how dependent ASEAN is on leaders of the member states, and how unstable this can be at times if a non-ASEAN-interested leader is leading in one of the countries. It struck me that now might be the right time to bring ASEAN to the people of ASEAN. Because no matter what national governance system or leadership, if there is pressure or interest from the people of ASEAN, if people realise that ASEAN is relevant, perhaps the change of leadership that may occur in ASEAN would have less impact on these matters. So, the issue is how do you bring ASEAN to its people, how do you convince people of ASEAN that they have a say in the regional organisation, that they exercise pressure on their leaders to bring ASEAN forward and to the next level?

H.E. Kasit Piromya: First, I think when we started out together, the 5 of us, the perception of the common danger was more or less understood. One does not need to be explain to one another that it was communism based on what happened in China, in the Soviet Union, in the Indo-Chinese state, and the fact of the existence of the Communist Party in Thailand or Myanmar. It was a reality. The leaders were able to know what to do together and to be able to talk to the people, we all had to keep up with the live in the free world. That was a clear-cut link. The difficulty today is that with the new members of ASEAN – I think Prime Minister Hun Sen, if I may be a bit frank, has still has not understood that joining ASEAN is not merely to come and take, but there must be that notion and willingness also to give back to the whole. I have been observing in the past 10 years also, there is always that behaviour of national interests – of Laos and Cambodia in particular- that comes before the regional interests. It is something that has to be nurtured, to get together to explain that Prime Minister Hun Sen or Secretary General of the Communist Party of Laos that once you are with the family, it is the obligation to the whole, to the collective good and not individual survival or own country’s progress. That was demonstrated at Cambodia’s leadership of ASEAN in 2012. Ever since then, because of that lack of collectiveness, the cohesion and regionalism of ASEAN has been on a downhill trajectory. For that reason, we have not been able to forge a common front on South China Sea. Whether we are a claimant state or not, it is a common interest of ASEAN, we have to have one position. Like how we did have a common position to gain support of tri-partite coalition partners of Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam’s aggression in Cambodia. It was a clear-cut joint position and there was not much need for explanation. We got supplies of artilleries and so on from Singapore, because the Thai military at that time did not have enough ammunition to fight them effectively. That regionalism has to somehow be inculcated and nurtured into the leadership of the newly arrived ASEAN members. Aung San Suu Kyi now, in particular, she is still operating Myanmar membership in ASEAN as if the ASEAN community owes something to Myanmar. I hear a lot of things but so far, she has not given back.

Second, to make ASEAN really people-centred, then I think the access to information is very important, dissemination of information is very important at all levels and to every strata of society. The goal must be to make the 630 million ASEAN citizens more informed, and once more informed, then their engagement and participation will come. I think the difficulty also has to do with individual political structures, with Laos and Vietnam still run by a communist party which has hierarchical structures like the Chinese communist party and where information will be passed on down to village level then the whole Chinese society becomes less involved. So internal communication is very important, regardless of the nature of the political structure, whether it is authoritarian or non-authoritarian.

At one time, when I was chair of ASEAN in 2009, I suggested having elevated progress in terms of linking television and radio programmes and even to have respective languages and so on in a sort of cross-border type of programme, like programmes in Burmese for Burmese workers in Thailand. More cultural activities for people. We did even organise, in the course of the year 2009, the joint water festivals because out of ten countries, at least 5-6 had water festivals, or the Ramayana, or the cotton fabrics (Batiks), the bamboo musical instruments and so on. So let’s go for the more commonalities and try to link that. That feeling of being together and being one people. I was suggesting to Marty outside the room that from now on, anything that we have to do with UNESCO World Heritage should be on the ASEAN ticket and not one submission by Cambodia, or Thailand or Burma, or Indonesia, because there is no one that holds the originality of things – it was a Southeast Asian thing, it is a common heritage, so we should submit the application in the name of ASEAN as a whole. This would be one example where we can have more people be involved in the ASEAN affairs. To achieve this, I think that the bureaucrats with their political masters in all ten ASEAN countries from now on have to open up all the agenda items to the civil society and the community development organisations involve them more.

H.E. Marty Natalegawa: You mentioned the internal-external or national-regional nexus, the link between those levels. I believe this is one of the most serious challenges, but at the same time, an opportunity for ASEAN to try to manage: how can one have a thorough and candid and effective management or synergy between the national and the regional, internal and external nexus. In the same way, which I hope we can discuss later, the nexus between the regional and the global dynamics. On the internal and external, this has been a very new preoccupation for many of us. Certainly in Indonesia, post-reform, post-1998, because there is a school of thought or suggestion that even within Indonesia, which is somewhat revived nowadays, as if between domestic and foreign policy, it is an “either-or” pursuit. So we have preferences or priorities, at the moment, the priority is national priorities, rather than external, as if they are actually either or. In the past, we purposefully and deliberately suggested an alternative vision that actually, foreign and domestic policies are very much intertwined, they are interlinked, one cannot be pursued at the expense of the other. In other words, therefore, we must have a very thorough and synergic, complementary relationship. Now, within ASEAN, post 1998, when Indonesia reformed, we were immediately confronted with the reality that if Indonesia was to become more democratic, we must ensure that the region itself was not an exact replica of ourselves because we have no wish to impose our systems or values, but at the same time, there has to be some kind of common sense of synergy in the region. That is why Indonesia brought to ASEAN’s discussion the notion of political security connectivity, to have ASEAN have discussions on governance, human rights, democratic principles. All those are principles and ideas that were absent within ASEAN before, exclusively viewed as being internal in nature rather than of regional relevance. But we chose to go that way because we needed to marry, to synergise the two dynamics.

To the point you were making on leadership and personalities: I am afraid that we were conscious, deliberate and purposeful in recognising that governments and leaders come and go. Therefore, we must have a so-called rules-based ASEAN to ensure that whoever are the leaders of the countries in the region, there is a certain level of basic standard of behaviour and hence, we have all these wonderful frameworks and agreements such as human rights declaration or the ASEAN inter-governmental commission of human rights. I thought personally, we were good to go. I honestly thought that we had a sufficiently robust systems and governance that whoever comes and goes, things will be on a positive trajectory, no longer an either-or internal-external, they can be made to be complementary. However, events in the past 4-5 years suggest, in my view, that we are not there yet. Leaders matter, their inclinations, their lack of interest, their dismissal of foreign policies. Hence, in my view, we are back to where ASEAN was before 2003, an ASEAN that basically says non-interference, sovereignty, which to me, is a bit sad, because all of us had worked so hard in building capacities, and yet we chose what was most needed to let these capacities be set aside, and the problem is because a lot of these capacities are only potential rather than real, it requires development of state practice. Indonesia, together with Thailand, we were very keen to bring forward to ASEAN transformative state practice. When there were meetings of ASEAN foreign ministers, without anyone asking, Indonesia almost always brings our internal problems to the ASEAN setting. We were not happy about it, but we purposefully did it, we wanted to create new norms and principles, we brought all kinds of internal problems, obviously, that we have. But having shared those internal problems, we privately encouraged Myanmar to do the same, the Philippines, Thailand. It worked for a while, but once Indonesia ceased that kind of dynamic change in leadership, then we had what was a virtuous cycle becoming a vicious one, where we are copying one another’s bad practices. The practice of mutual encouragement of negative conduct. We all anticipated the increase in convergence in internal-external dynamics, we were transformative and anticipatory, we had all kinds of mechanisms that are still out there at the moment. Unfortunately, for some reason, ASEAN currently, in my view, somehow chose, for reasons known only to itself, to set it aside and revert back to thought processes before all these instruments were there. This is unfortunate and is something that requires a revisit by our ASEAN leaders.

Dr Kliem: Thank you for those insights. I would like to stay with the notion of leadership and in particular how Indonesia brought up certain issues that are now pivotal to the political security of ASEAN. This brings me to the wider leadership question that is always discussed by ASEAN experts: There are two types of leadership “institutions” that can be exhibited in ASEAN – one is the rotating ASEAN chair who takes on leadership of ASEAN and brings issues forward, and the other one is the foreign minister of Indonesia. For some reason, Indonesia always seems to be the one that pushes ASEAN forward. Against the backdrop of capriciously changing leadership and increasingly decreasing interest in ASEAN affairs, one can never be sure whether the chair or the Indonesia foreign minister takes a great enough interest in ASEAN to put this high on the agenda, so are there, in your view, alternative forms of leadership and can we go beyond this binary perspective of leadership? Can there, for example, be other countries that bring leadership forward? Can there be issue-dependent leadership, for instance, Singapore taking leadership on the economic community or Vietnam taking leadership on South China Sea?

H.E. Kasit Piromya: Let me cite a couple of examples. With the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA), it was former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who formed these ideas together with the former Prime Minister of Thailand, but Singapore did not want to be the forefront, so the former Prime Minister of Thailand took the lead. That has happened before. Taking the Cambodia problems, it was Ali Alatas, former Indonesian Foreign Minister, who took the initiative. Or the Vietnamese boat people, where we, Thailand took up the initiative, and then the other ASEAN countries came along. So I think what we did previously is what we should continue to do as the way: a couple of ministers have bright ideas and determination to work for the common good of ASEAN, then go on to suggest projects, ideas and discussions and ask someone to be the shepherd, or the leader of a specific project.

But I think what has been the case for the past 4 to 5 years in ASEAN is that we have not seen any of the presidents or prime ministers really taking up any particular issue, let alone the foreign ministers. I have been quite critical of the quality of leadership among foreign ministers, that no one is really taking up the mantle to lead and take the responsibility. I think that individual initiative is very important, and once there is one taker, the rest of ASEAN would come along. Then we do not have to settle this in open, formal discussions, it will be over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Before, it used to be at the golf course, but most of us do not play golf anymore. Those informal discussions are crucial. It has been very frank, Marty and I can ascertain that when we talk about Myanmar’s military government situation at that time very frank and we never minced our words with the Myanmar foreign minister at that time. Frank, open, “family” discussions to solve the problem and to push the seven-point road map forward. I think that tradition must be renewed, and again made the normal practice. ASEAN cannot go on with centrality if it does not manifest its united front and someone taking the responsibility to push ASEAN around here, in the Asia Pacific, particularly at the UN headquarters in New York and to a lesser extent, in Geneva. From my own experience: I was a diplomat in 1975 in Brussels, and we were the first ASEAN committee abroad. The ASEAN-Brussel committee. I was a young diplomat, that spirit of ASEAN got into my DNA because we had to negotiate the five-plus-Brunei at that time with the EU commission on textile and tobacco and animal feeds and GSP and development assistance. But we did it together under the ASEAN flag. So that spirit is there, but now, even the ASEAN committee is in various capitals, they have not been doing enough of that ASEAN promotion, of that ASEAN position, of the joint negotiation with any of the host countries.

H.E. Marty Natalegawa: I think that there is potential, but hopefully not, a distinction between chairmanship and leadership. The Chair of ASEAN has the obvious advantage of being in a position that is recognised formally within the ASEAN chapter, with all the various authorities and mandates that a Chair possess, so it has that sense of gravitas and authority. But as the past often informed us, there could be a distinction between chairmanship and leadership because a chair may not exercise the type of leadership needed during the country’s chairmanship year. And we have many instances where the chair decides to be more passive, or demonstrate more of its own national preferences to the disadvantage of ASEAN. The key challenge would be to ensure that the chair does not only serve the procedure or function of the chair, but also demonstrates the type of leadership in terms of substance that is often needed for ASEAN in its affairs. But in the case of ASEAN, and the notion of leadership, you mentioned Indonesia, but really, there are many instances where different ASEAN member states demonstrate game-changing capacities, whether in the economic domain, or in the socio-cultural domain. For example, the Philippines has been particularly active on socio-cultural issues in ASEAN. In other words, it has never been a one-country led process. At the same time, I can understand if there is a suggestion that Indonesia matters in terms of ASEAN’s dynamics, even in size etc. But actually, in the case of Indonesia, sometimes, less can be more because we are so obviously quite a large portion of ASEAN, our strength derives from the comfort level the rest of ASEAN member states feel of Indonesia rather than Indonesia throwing its weight around. So by exercising its strength, we can earn better support and gain confidence of ASEAN colleagues. Just to draw the distinction once again between leadership and chairmanship. When Thailand and Cambodia faced an important situation in early 2011, Indonesia was chair of ASEAN. So in us carrying out our facilitating role, we had data at the background, that was useful, but at the same time, we were navigating sensitivities of both sides, whether our effort is being made on behalf of ASEAN or is it more as Indonesia, but sometimes we let things be a sense of constructive ambiguity and to not press the issue, we just proceed step by step. But then at least, the fact that Indonesia was chairing ASEAN at that time helped in a sense that we had doors open, so to speak, that would otherwise not have been open. But in 2012, when we had the episode in Phnom Penh when ASEAN was unable to agree on a chairman statement because of the South China Sea, the first time for ASEAN to be in that position, Indonesia then, 24 hours after the conclusion of the ministerial meeting, decided to try to manage and fix the problem by going about around countries of ASEAN and having a chairman statement on the South China Sea afterwards. We were not chair of ASEAN at that time, and I was a little bit concerned about what would be the reception by ASEAN member states – why are we doing this role, from what authority are we deriving such a role – but I thought that any member state of ASEAN should exercise this type of initiative when the situation requires it.

Going back to H.E. Kasit’s point, nowadays divisions within ASEAN does not surprise me, whether it be divisions or variations in outlook. What troubles me now, and what is different today, is that when we have differences or variations in outlook, there is a sense of drift. No one is driven and becomes agitated to try to restore unity. So we have divisions, and that is too bad. We move on to the next summit or ministerial meeting. No one is agitated enough to try to solve these divisions. I am a little bit concerned that there is a sense of new normal, even APEC, when we had the episode in Papa New Guinea, a couple of weeks ago. But after APEC, no one felt that this is the problem, asked why we are ending the whole thing in that way. This is again, in my view, to do with leadership, no one country is taking up the battle and saying we have to fix this. That was what is troubling me, this sense of drift, sense of letting things be, someone yesterday used the term fatalism, in different context on geopolitical dynamics, but this is what worries me. I hope that the Thailand chairmanship of ASEAN will display a bit more can-do type of spirit within ASEAN.

Dr Kliem: I agree with you on the APEC meeting recently. I read many commentaries saying that it is not the same as the ASEAN joint communique because the communique of the statements of APEC do not really matter anyway. I would strongly disagree with that statement and agree with you that it is very troubling to see that people accept that. I think it does matter, perceptions do matter, absolutely.

H.E. Marty Natalegawa: In the past, from what I understand, but I am happy to be correct from ASEAN experts in this room, ASEAN documents, declarations and statements reflect a common position. They use terms like: We, leaders; We, ministers. But nowadays, when you read these statements, some are from the perspective of third parties, “some ministers express concerns in these documents”. In other words, it becomes almost similar to a summary record rather than a reflection of common views. In these declarations, some ASEAN member states are portrayed as third parties by saying, on issues such as the South China Sea, “some ministers express concerns on the building of artificial installations”. To me, it is better not to say it, rather than to codify divisions, to codify as if on an issue of such tremendous importance, only some are able to express it and the rest chose to be silent. To me, ASEAN needs to take a more cohesive strategy and demonstrate a more united way.