Thailand gets ready to take Asean chair

Thailand gets ready to take Asean chair

Singapore Prime Minister and current Asean chairman Lee Hsien Loong kicked off Asean Summit Week in the Lion City with a keynote address to the Asean Business and Investment Summit (ABIS) on the sidelines of the political gathering. (AFP photo)
Singapore Prime Minister and current Asean chairman Lee Hsien Loong kicked off Asean Summit Week in the Lion City with a keynote address to the Asean Business and Investment Summit (ABIS) on the sidelines of the political gathering. (AFP photo)

A decade after living through the devastating experience of the 2009 Asean summit, the kingdom will have another chance to regain its regional leadership and reputation. Singapore will pass the baton to Thailand on Nov 15 as the Asean chair. Although the official role will kick off in January, Bangkok will get the ball rolling immediately.

Preparations have been well under way for the past two years to ensure that Thailand's time as chair will proceed without hiccups. Like a kanom chan (multi-layered rice-cake), several domestic hurdles need to be cleared in the next three critical months.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

First of all, on Dec 11 the organic laws related to the electoral process will take effect, paving the way for the official announcement of Feb 24 as election day. Bans will be lifted on political activity and campaigning approximately 60 days before the election. During the second week of January, all registered parties must file the names of their candidates. Qualified candidates will be announced on Jan 25. Advance voting will be held on Feb 17. The outcome of the election will be officially announced within 60 days by April 24.

Then, the focus will be shifted to the new session of the National Assembly under the reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. May will be an exciting month, as freshly elected politicians will gradually display their true colours as the parties with the most votes try to form the next government. A new House Speaker is expected to be named in the third week of May. The speaker will play a crucial role in electing the next prime minister. Whoever leads Thailand next year will have less than four weeks to get ready to chair Asean.

The 34th Asean Summit has been fixed for the third week of June at a five-star hotel, and the 52nd Asean Ministerial meeting is set for the end of July. Thailand's time as chair will culminate during the first week of November 2019, when the leaders of the great powers will converge in Bangkok to attend the 14th East Asia Summit on the sideline of 35th Asean Summit.

According to Suriya Chindawongse, director-general of the Asean Department, Thailand will focus on three broad objectives: a people-centred community, leaving no one behind, and looking ahead beyond 2040. These have been recurring priorities in Thailand's Asean policies since it first held the Asean summit in 1995.

At the previous summit, held in Hua Hin in, Thailand placed the utmost importance on the concept of empowering Asean citizens. With the strong voices and large presence of local and regional civil society organisations (CSOs), the chair has been paying a great deal of attention to their views and possible input, much to the chagrin of some Asean member countries, which do not share this view.

Thailand would like to bring back the interface between Asean leaders and Asean-based CSOs. Over 50,000 entities are stationed in Thailand. Depending on the Asean chair's preference, the format of such an interface varies from year to year. Judging from the past 12 years since the interface begun in 2005, Asean leaders are inclined to avoid face-to-face dialogue, and they have often treated the CSOs' ideas as too liberal or impractical. Also, certain Asean leaders felt uneasy and irritated when talking directly with independent CSO representatives. Looking ahead, Asean leaders need a new mindset in engaging their own citizens.

As Asean coordinator on issues of sustainable development, Thailand is linking the Asean agenda with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals 2030. It is not a surprise that the Thai chair's priority will have a strong component of sustainable development and the self-sufficient economy. For the past few years, Thailand has worked closely with UN agencies to work out action plans and other deliverable outcomes in this area. "Leaving no one behind" is the current government's mantra.

As one of the founders of Asean back in 1967, Thailand is also concentrated on the bloc's relevancy. Truth be told, the kingdom has had the most consistent and unwavering policy toward the Asean grouping. Every government over the past five decades has embraced Asean and its principles without fail, and Asean has remained the main pillar of Thai foreign policy. Once again, the kingdom's stint as Asean chair would allow Thailand to display its vision for, and dedication to, the group.

Thailand has commissioned the Jakarta-based think tank, the Economic Research Institute of East Asia and Asean, to prepare a report on the Asean Vision 2040. The report will examine what Asean needs to do in the next two decades to maintain its centrality in all dimensions. The chair would like to ensure that Asean has stronger institutions and the political will to overcome future challenges that come its way. The fluidity and uncertainty of the regional and international environment has glued its members together, knowing full well that the power of their leverage depends on the grouping's collective political will and common decisions.

Indeed, it was with this new mindset that Asean decided to tackle the nascent Indo-Pacific concept. Asean members, especially Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, have specific ideas on how to shape the original plan into an all-encompassing one, not aiming at any one particular country. At next week's East Asia Summit, the current chair will summarise the grouping's position on the framework. Further discussions among Asean are still needed. The incoming chair, Thailand, will be working closely with Indonesia and other members to fine-tune Asean's input.

Outstanding economic, security/political, and social/cultural issues will still be on the agenda. These include the fate of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the digital economic connectivity, the progress of negotiations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, security on the Korean Peninsula, cyber security, tackling extremism and radicalism, the Rakhine State crisis in Myanmar, and more human rights protections in Asean.

At the final preparatory meeting last month, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha reiterated that the success of Asean chair next year would depend on the full support of all stakeholders inside the country. It is hoped that there will not be any political mishaps and shenanigans, as in the past, that could easily derail the host's ambitions.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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