Asia Program

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Democracy, Political Change, and Global Governance: A Discussion With ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan

May 19, 2011 // 4:00pm5:00pm
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Dr. Surin Pitsuwan extended his sincere thanks to the organizers and sponsors of this event held at the Woodrow Wilson Center, organized by the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, Transnational Challenges and Emerging Nations Dialogue (TRANSCEND) at the School of International Service, American University, and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, in cooperation with the ASEAN Studies Center, American University. He briefly reviewed his experience studying in the U.S. and his political career representing his home town, Nakorn Sri Thammarat, in the Thai parliament, and as the Thai Foreign Minister and the ASEAN Secretary-General. Dr. Pitsuwan particularly emphasized that he joined the American Political Science Association’s Congressional Fellowship Program in 1983-1984, serving in the Congressional Office of U.S. Representative Geraldine A. Ferraro (D-New York), who later became the Vice Presidential Candidate for the Democratic Party in 1984, and worked for the Senate Republican Conference in the latter half of 1984.

Dr. Pitsuwan noted, from a regional perspective, ASEAN has a lot to contribute to the world. ASEAN covers an area of 4.46 million square kilometers, 3 percent of the total land area of Earth, with a population of approximately 600 million people, 8.8 percent of the world population. In 2010, its combined nominal GDP had grown to $1.8 trillion. This is larger than India. Dr. Pitsuwan pointed out that he is very happy to see President Barack Obama declare his participation in the East Asia summit in Jakarta later this year, and the U.S. is committed to reengaging with ASEAN and diverting its attention from other regions of the world back to Asia.

Dr. Pitsuwan recalled his conversation with some European leaders at the Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM) in October 2008 in Beijing, China. When the European countries ask the Chinese Communist Party to keep China’s door open and keep buying, they have neglected how much the ASEAN countries have achieved over the years and what they have to offer.

What has ASEAN achieved? Dr. Pitsuwan posed. The path that ASEAN has taken is a “double journey” through economic development and democratization. With rapid economic development, ASEAN has successfully attracted more foreign investment. Almost 60 percent of foreign direct investment (FDI) actually has gone to the service sector. This shows that people like to live in ASEAN countries and want to improve the quality of life.

On the other journey, that of democracy, Dr. Pitsuwan noted that ASEAN has never lacked authoritarian regimes in its history. Suharto of Indonesia stayed in power for 30 years, Mahathir of Malaysia for 20 years. The ASEAN states used to be governed by a planned economy and centralized polity. Economic achievements used to be the only legitimating factor for the various regimes in the region. However, political transformation has come hand in hand with economic development. In the process of economic development, public space has been created; doors have been opened for both public and private sectors. Leaders from public and private sectors formulated policies together. Independent media’s influence is on the rise, because space has been given to them.

Quoting Woodrow Wilson, the former president of the United States, “that we [the United States] are chosen and prominently chosen to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty,” Dr. Pitsuwan continued that ASEAN countries have proven that they have indeed “walked the paths of liberty.” “Paths” here is plural, not singular. There are multiple paths to democracy. The world has seen more opening and democratic development in the region, despite the problems. The overall situation of the region as a whole has improved dramatically. It is better than North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf countries. Today, 58 countries are sending ambassadors to ASEAN and ASEAN has become a permanent fixture of G-20, and ASEAN proves to be able to manage its own affairs with support and help from its friends all over the world. In March 2010, ASEAN has launched the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI), a multilateral currency swap arrangement among the 10 members of ASEAN, China, Japan, and South Korea. It draws from a foreign exchange reserves pool worth $120 billion. This is a great example showing how far ASEAN has come.

Dr. Pitsuwan noted that people in ASEAN countries have already gone beyond what the people in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Gulf regions are going through. The Muslim states of ASEAN are usually so diversified, with different cultures, different languages, and different economies. And they have managed to accommodate, to experiment, to innovate, and to discover their own modernity. Thus, the path that ASEAN has taken was not as explosive and is less violent than what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East today.

Overall, ASEAN has achieved a certain degree of development and democratization, however, Dr. Pitsuwan also pointed out that some controversies still remain. The issue of Myanmar is a case in point. Nevertheless, it should be noted that with ASEAN’s help, Myanmar opened its door to FDI in 2008 and also opened the space for the growth of civil society. The journey of the development of ASEAN has come through more and more democratic transformation, and has reached tremendous advancement.

On the ASEAN Charter, Dr. Pitsuwan noted that there are some gaps in the Charter, but they will be filled as the organization evolves. Noting that the Constitutional documents drafted by America’s founding fathers did not initially accommodate some groups, such as women and the non-propertied classes of American society—yet the U.S. government has been inclusive of these and other marginalized groups— similarly, the ASEAN Charter will be a living document that will evolve to accommodate all sections of the societies in the spirit of inclusiveness and democracy. Even though ASEAN’s journey is still long, ASEAN has maintained the momentum of economic development coming hand-in-hand with political democratization. ASEAN shows the world that “we can take care of ourselves [sic].”

During the Q&A session, when asked what specific experience ASEAN has to offer the countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Dr. Pitsuwan highlighted that the journey of ASEAN has been less costly and extremely patient. He also pointed out that democracies of ASEAN countries have a role to play in promoting the spread of democratic values and political reform in authoritarian countries in the neighborhood. ASEAN should provide a regional environment that, on the one hand, cherish the basic human rights and democratic values, and on the other hand, provide countries going through transitions the support and the freedom to experiment various paths. Dr. Pitsuwan further elaborated on the effort that has been taken by ASEAN to promote the protection of human rights through the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). The founding of the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights is a good example which demonstrates how ASEAN countries are willing to take more substantial steps to improve the human rights situation in the region as a whole. The non-interference norm is no longer regarded as absolute in ASEAN. Thus, ASEAN should provide more support to the development of local civil society groups to let them grow and experiment, which in return, would improve the quality of governance in the ASEAN neighborhood.

Commenting on the institutionalization of ASEAN as a regional organization, Dr. Pitsuwan rejected the idea of using the European Union as the sole benchmark and noted that ASEAN has chosen a unique way to evolve based on its own diversified cultural, economic, and political situation. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that ASEAN is on its way to go beyond cooperation at the non-traditional security level, and is ready to prove its capability to influence its member states’ decisions regarding inter-state security conflicts. The recent ASEAN intervention in the Thailand-Cambodia temple dispute is one important case as an example.

Finally, Dr. Pisuwan hoped that ASEAN can become an inspiration rather than a model for other regions, such as North Africa and the Middle East. ASEAN is still on its long journey to modernity and there is still a long way to go.

By Shan Shan Mei and Amitav Acharya, American University
Robert M. Hathaway, Director
 

 
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