Before the 1999 Meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bangkok, Shanmugam jayakumar, foreign minister of Singapore, cautioned that ASEAN had to counter "the perception of ASEAN as ineffective and a sunset organisation."
The issues that prompted this dire warning two years ago are still relevant today.They point to a significant need to re-evaluate ASEAN's mode of operation-the "ASEAN way" of informal dialogue, a refusal to openly criticize member countries' policies, a continuous emphasis on consensus and rapport, and, most importantly, a norm of non-intervention in each other's affairs. Recent events have shown that ASEAN's way, particularly with non-interference, is a relic of the past and is not equipped to deal with the pressing problems facing ASEAN today.
ASEAN's obsolescence was thrown into focus in the late 1990s. Two crises shook the pillars of the non-intervention standard: first the Asian economic crisis in 1997, and then the East Timor debacle in 1999. During the economic crisis, ASEAN was criticized by many for doing nothing as the economies of its members contracted violently and set off a global panic. People also criticized ASEAN's reluctance to consider creating an Asian Economic Fund to ameliorate such crises and the unwillingness of other ASEAN member nations to criticize or even advise each other. ASEAN did not warn the Thai government when it decided to float the Thai baht, a decision that set off the crisis. Again, members were silent when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad made illtimed comments on US investors and when the Indonesians rejected the IMF's initial relief plan. ASEAN's perceived failure in adequately addressing the Asian economic crisis is even more damning because the organization is popularly recognized as prioritizing economic cooperation and understanding among its members.
ASEAN's strict adherence to noninterference in its members' affairs was similarly discredited in the case of East Timor. In 1999, after the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in favor of a referendum for independence from Indonesia, pro-Jakarta militias killed tens of thousands in a wave of violence that created general anarchy in East Timor. Again, ASEAN was reluctant to take any direct action in the matter, even though there were calls for "regional intervention" within East Timor; the situation was eventually met with a UN peacekeeping force. The fact that some ASEAN states still refuse to send troops to East Timor shows the persistence of the non-interference standard. In deference to Indonesia, Malaysia, despite being the first to commit to a multinational force, subsequently wavered over sending their soldiers to East Timor and refused to take on the deputy command of the mission. The UN force had only limited participation by military personnel from the ASEAN states, with the exception of Thailand.
These two events highlight how ASEAN non-interference has allowed problems within the region to escalate. The only solutions have come from the outside, diminishing the organization's significance. There is an urgent need for ASEAN to recognize that internal problems have serious regional and global ramifications. Being unable to openly discuss or tolerate criticism hampers the formation of an adequate regional response to immediate and continuing problems. The issue of human rights in particular remains taboo among ASEAN governments, entirely at odds with the global move toward "the universality of human rights" as codified in the Vienna Protocol of 1994.
ASEAN non-intervention has a historical basis in the foundations of the organization itself. The Bangkok Declaration of 1967, which established ASEAN, introduced the notion of "equality and partnership. "The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the cornerstone of all ASEAN relations, enshrines in Article 10 the right of every state to make national policy free from external subversion or coercion. At the time, ASEAN was seen as historically successful. Michael Leifer, one of the world's leading authorities on East Asian affairs, points out that ASEAN was hailed in the 1980s as a "respected diplomatic community," particularly distinguished because of its position in the developing world. Such diplomatic amity was achieved precisely because ASEAN, in the words of a Philippine official,"concentrates on what brings us together, not what keeps us apart. "
Yet today there is a need for an increased regional response to regional problems, something that cannot, by definition, square with the traditional view of non-interference. As Thai foreign minister Pitsuwan argued in 1998, when he made a unanimously rejected attempt to persuade ASEAN to take a more active approach, "Countries should be able to express their opinions and concerns in an open, frank, and constructive manner." With a new global moral paradigm and increasing interdependency of states and economies,ASEAN must address the global concern that it is not pulling its own weight in the region. The potential hotspots in Asia, such as the Moluccas, Mindanao, and Ambon, as well as the political instability of such members as Indonesia, make it imperative for ASEAN to decide upon a specific direction and course of action that it is prepared to take before another crisis actually occurs. In fact, the increasing tendency for countries to find individual solutions to problems, bypassing ASEAN entirely, coupled with the strength of informal track-two diplomatic processes within the ASEAN region itself, means that the group does indeed risk imminent irrelevance.
ASEAN has made a number of moves to correct this trend.These moves must be built upon an idea that was ignored in 1998 by Pitsuwan: "flexible engagement." This idea has made a reappearance of sorts in the establishment of a "troika" mechanism composed of three member nations that can respond to security crises. In addition, the "ASEAN+3" process, by which ASEAN encourages increased dialogue with Japan, Korea, and China, shows ASEAN's commitment to regional issues. Unfortunately, consensus is still a condition for the functioning of the troika and for "ASEAN +3" decisions; this continuing adherence to non-interference remains a roadblock to concrete policy.
Clearly, the re-evaluation of ASEAN non-interference is a bumpy road. With new ASEAN members like Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar being the staunchest supporters of continued non-interference, extra care must be taken to address these challenges. The ASEAN secretariat should be strengthened, and efforts should be made to take into account the possible contributions of the ASEAN Institutes for Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN-ISIS), the grouping of regional research institutes that constitute the most important and visible peace and security-related track-two mechanisms in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the possibility of extending the notion of "ASEAN Minus X"' the principle by which ASEAN functions as a "coalition of the willing" and allows for ASEAN directives to be implemented at different rates in different countries, should be examined.
Most fundamentally, steps must be taken to engender a re-evaluation of the "non-interference" norm and to promote the understanding that ASEAN interference in a member's affairs is not necessarily a sign of condemnation, but, instead, simply a commitment to helping that member improve.As Pitsuwan makes clear, "ASEAN countries have an overriding interest in the internal affairs of [their] fellow members and may, on occasion, find it necessary to recommend a certain course of action on specific issues that affect us all, directly or indirectly.... We may need to make intraASEAN relations more... 'constructive' than before" ASEAN would do well to heed his words.