For a prosperous future we must rethink the 'Asean way'
Policy of non-interference must give way to better systems of representation
This year, Thailand is chairing Asean, and we just had an Asean Summit here in Bangkok. The day before the summit, an opposition leader made a speech calling upon Asean to change its way and to drop what he believes are some principles that Asean has held, such as non-interference in the internal affairs of others and wanting Asean to place greater emphasis on human rights and democracy.
The next day, there was quite a swift and strong reaction from the Foreign Ministry. The foreign minister himself, no less, said that the opposition leader did not understand what Asean was about, and that his ideas were dangerous because they could split and divide Asean and undo all the progress and achievements Asean had made over many decades.
For me, this is a very important and valid debate and Asean really needs to think about how we operate in order to be able to meet the challenges that we face. Trying to review or even revise the way we do things is not to take away the achievements that Asean has made over half a century. But we must recognise how the global and regional environments have evolved.
Sometimes we forget that when Asean was founded, it was all about security, and the threat to security then was communism.
The founding members of Asean decided to get together to ensure that communism did not spread and that member states could then get on with their own development process. Asean succeeded and proceeded to integrate the rest of the countries within the region into the organisation.
As economic challenges came to the fore, Asean embarked upon the free trade area project, subsequently expanded to become an Asean Economic Community, as one of three pillars of the Asean Community. Again, we could argue that Asean has been successful and continues to be one of the fastest-growing regions in the world economically, a region that has been able to weather economic and financial crises well. So it would be hard to deny Asean's achievements were not made possible by the way Asean had operated in a manner consistent with the culture in the region where we try to move things by consensus, and by not publicly shaming or condemning each other.
Yet the two sides in the argument mentioned earlier are both partly right and partly wrong. It is not true that there is a "strict" non-interference in internal affairs, because everybody knows that in a globalised setting it is impossible to ignore the impact beyond borders of any development within each member state. It's just that we don't do it the Western way or the European way. There are always consultations. At the time when Myanmar was struggling with its roadmap to democracy, every Asean meeting had a discussion on the matter. At the same time, though, it is timely to begin to ask whether this mode of operation will continue to serve us well to meet the major challenges of today.
My own view is that the challenges of today demand so much more from all countries and from all regional groupings, Asean included. Today's challenges are all intertwined and very complex. They require much more than technical knowledge to deal with them. They require much more than having business-as-usual meetings of leaders and bureaucrats to affect changes that we want to see. The challenges of today demand strong political leadership and political will at both the national and Asean levels.
For instance, the issue of the South China Sea was the first that led to an Asean summit ending without an agreed joint statement. The issue will continue to be one of the major challenges the region faces with member states being claimants and non-claimants, but all having a stake in making sure that there is safe passage in the area.
We face the issue of economic competitiveness, but not in the same way that we did in the days where we pushed for free trade agreements. Competitiveness no longer revolves around tariffs and market access for goods. It's more about creating internal and fundamental competitiveness through the quality of human resources, through the right set of rules and regulations, through the creation of an effective network or supply chain in order to be able to compete in the current economic environment.
And while a few decades ago, Asean could probably boast that even within Asia we were one of the fastest-growing and biggest economies, now, with the rise of China and India, we see how the economic agenda is being dictated by these superpowers. Ten years ago, Thailand began the Asean Connectivity Initiative, but within one or two years, it was all overshadowed by the One Belt One Road Initiative of China. Since then, we rarely see Asean approach this issue of connectivity as a group or as a block, but we see member states negotiating or trying to benefit from the One Belt One Road Initiative from China individually.
As for inequality, there continues to be a big economic gap between the member states. Fundamental structural reforms are needed to address this. And the problem has an external dimension, often exacerbated by the way countries race to the bottom in terms of social protection and tax regimes to attract investment while the multinationals and big-tech corporations operating in the region often take advantage using their size and networks to entrench their dominance at the expense of the small traders, farmers and workers who feel disruption and hardship.
The issue of climate change itself requires very strong political will and cooperation and no single country can solve this problem.
One key to success in meeting these challenges is to note that social enterprises, NGOs, local authorities and third sectors have in many places been far more effective than central governments. Asean must therefore engage these players in order to attain a sustainable community. The political structure must be able to accommodate the participation and inclusiveness within the system, something Asean clearly does not have at present.
Ten years ago, we wanted to establish an Asean human rights commission. We were partly successful because we did set up a commission. But can anyone recall the work of this commission over the last decade when we have had global criticism on a number of issues, from the Rohingya crisis to extrajudicial killings? Secondly, we initiated the practice that at Asean Summit meetings, civil society leaders, representatives from Asean youth and parliamentarians can meet with Asean leaders. This was subsequently dropped. So basically, there is clearly a democracy deficit within Asean. This means that we have to address this deficit at two levels.
At the regional level, the organisation needs to allow more participation from representatives of the people in each country.
At the national level, questions will continue to be asked whether it is possible to reflect the will of the people of a member state at the Asean level if there is no good system of representation within that country. While not advocating for interference in internal politics, Asean needs to recognise that this is a problem and some standards would have to be set in terms of representation, engagement and participation in member states if it has the ambition to establish a true community. The Asean way needs to adapt to allow for this increased participation and engagement. Economic and social inclusiveness will not happen if you do not have political inclusiveness. This is Asean's biggest challenge.
Abhisit Vejjajiva is a former prime minister of Thailand. This article is an abridged version of his speech delivered on August 1 at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Former prime minister of Thailand
Former prime minister of Thailand and Democrat Party leader.