ASEAN for a stable, inclusive and prosperous Southeast Asia

March 13, 2016

ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Statement on the passing of H.E. Dr. Thanat Khoman, Former Deputy Prime Minister of The Kingdom of Thailand

We, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers, are saddened to learn that H.E. Dr. Thanat Khoman, former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand, the last surviving Founding Father who signed the 1967 Bangkok Declaration, passed away at the age of 102. His immeasurable contribution and dedication to the establishment of ASEAN has laid a solid foundation of the ASEAN Community. On this sorrowful occasion, we would like to express our deepest sympathy and sincere condolences to his family through the Government of the Kingdom of Thailand.

ASEAN for a stable, inclusive and prosperous Southeast Asia

by Termsak Chalermpalanupap and Tang Siew Mun*

The peace and prosperity that Southeast Asia experiences today can be traced to one eventful day on August 8, 1967. That day, the Indonesian, Malaysian, Philippine, Singaporean and Thai Foreign Ministers inked the Bangkok Declaration to establish the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

It was a bold and visionary move for the small grouping of five nations to stake out their positions and responses in a region that was marked by distrust, rivalry and open warfare.

These visionary leaders — Indonesia’s Adam Malik, Malaysia’s Abdul Razak, the Philippines’ Narciso Ramos, Singapore’s S Rajaratnam and Thailand’s Thanat Khoman  — understood the strategic necessity for a regional grouping to dampen misperception and prevent intra-regional conflicts. Bringing Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to the negotiating table was no small feat considering the animosity created by Konfrontasi.

The Philippines was also actively affirming their claims on the Malaysian state of Sabah. The formation of ASEAN, thus, paved the way for the transformation of the five ASEAN states from rivals into friends.

Sadly, on March 3, 2016, ASEAN mourned the passing of Dr Thanat Khoman. He was the last of the surviving “founding fathers” of ASEAN. Dr Thanat was a distinguished Thai statesman who served as Foreign Minister from 1959 to 1971 and Deputy Prime Minister from 1980 to 1982.

Writing in 1992 for an Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) publication, he expounded on four major impetus for ASEAN’s establishment.

First, the departure of Western colonial powers after the end of the colonial era had created a “power vacuum” in Southeast Asia.

Second, cooperation with countries far away (such as during the era of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation or SEATO, when member countries included the United States, France and the United Kingdom) could be ineffective, because they did not always share our common interests.

Third, Southeast Asian countries must join hands in regional cooperation and fill the void in order to be heard and to protect ourselves from repercussions of “big power rivalry.”

Fourth, regional cooperation could help advance our common interests and achieve important goals that individual small countries could not reach on their own.

Moving on

These ideas are as prescient and relevant today as they were in 1967. Although the strategic environment has evolved over the past half a century, the rationale of preventing a power vacuum in Southeast Asia is just as pressing today.

Rather than using the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (Zopfan) as “strategic cover” to keep Southeast Asia “free from any form or manner of interference by outside Powers,” ASEAN has made an about-turn to encourage the major powers to remain engaged in the region. At the same time, ASEAN has diligently affirmed its centrality to safeguard its diplomatic space.

It would take ASEAN more than three decades to forge closer political, economic and socio-cultural cooperation, through the adoption of the Bali Concord II in 2003, to establish the ASEAN Community. It must have been a very proud moment for Dr Thanat to witness the formal establishment of the ASEAN Community last December.

Almost from the first day, ASEAN had to win over sceptics. Most scholars, observers and pundits of the day had expected it to go the way of the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), and Maphilindo. The two moribund entities were earlier attempts to create a new regional platform.

ASEAN has not only lasted for the past 49 years, but a strong argument can be made that it succeeded beyond what Dr Thanat and his four colleagues thought possible that day in August 1967.

Four ASEAN achievements stand above others. For starters, ASEAN is the glue that binds Southeast Asia together. By 1999, the association counts all ten regional states as its members. Its membership may grow to eleven in the near future as the ASEAN states consider Timor-Leste’s application.

To date, ASEAN has formalised intra-regional cooperation across more than 30 sectors. With the exception of the Preah Vihear dispute in 2011, ASEAN states have largely kept the peace. Intra-regional armed conflicts and wars are rare.

The establishment of the ASEAN Community will, for sure, rank as one of the association’s proudest achievements. Though not without its challenges, the ASEAN Community provides a focal point and modality for the member states to deepen cooperation.

The last and perhaps most understated of ASEAN’s achievements is its adeptness in managing major power relations in the region. Through fora such as the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meetings, ASEAN facilitates major power interaction over issues close to the heart of most Southeast Asians.

These ASEAN-led fora are the only ones able to bring the major powers together. It would have been very especially gratifying for the Founding Fathers to see ASEAN firmly entrenched in the region’s geo-political space.

At the same time, Dr Thanat and the Founding Fathers would not have imagined in their wildest dreams the breadth and depth of cooperation among the ASEAN states such as those encapsulated in the ASEAN 2025 Blueprints.

One development that may have caught Dr Thanat and his peers off-guard is the nascent shift in ASEAN’s centre of gravity from “leaders-led” to “people-oriented and people-centred.” To be sure, ASEAN is today, as it was in its early days, primarily elite-driven. At the same time, there is a greater degree of participation and interest from the business sector, civil society and the youth to engage ASEAN.

Dr Thanat and his colleagues Malik, Abdul Razak, Ramos and Rajaratnam had bequeathed to us the gift of friendship, camaraderie and trust that were, and will always remain, the basis of what makes Asean works. It is now incumbent on the new generation of Asean leaders to muster the same unbending spirit and fortitude to realise the vision of a united, progressive and prosperous ASEAN. — TODAY

*Termsak Chalermpalanupap and Tang Siew Mun are researchers at the Asean Studies Centre, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

6 thoughts on “ASEAN for a stable, inclusive and prosperous Southeast Asia

  1. Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Indosat network. From: Din Merican: the Malaysian DJ BloggerSent: Sunday, 13 March 2016 21:59To: nasser_yassin@yahoo.comReply To: Din Merican: the Malaysian DJ BloggerSubject: [New post] ASEAN for a stable, inclusive and prosperous Southeast Asia

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    dinobeano posted: “March 13, 2016

    ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Statement on the passing of H.E. Dr. Thanat Khoman, Former Deputy Prime Minister of The Kingdom of Thailand

    We, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers, are saddened to learn that H.E. Dr. Thanat Khoman, form”

  2. I hope some learned ladies and gentlemen can help to answer my curiosity in how Southeast Asia becomes what it is – 11 states, no more and no less. Why is Leste Timor considered SEA but not Papua New Guinea, which is on the same island? Why is Myanmar correctly included in SEA but not Bangladesh and Sri Lanka? Why is Confucian Vietnam not in East Asia but in SEA? Who determines what is Southeast Asia?
    Papua New Guinea is not interested in joining ASEAN, Timor Leste is. Their leaders have been preparing themselves for this possibility since 2007. –Din Merican

  3. The strength of the chain depends on its weakest link.You can already see it in the European Union where the push and pull factors are dominating the Union depending on the strength of individual governments. Only the strength of individual countries can contribute to the strength of any union. And while you are working on t the weakest link population is growing between 2-3 percent placing further pressure to weaken that weakest link. Add to that that many governments are introducing policies that are causing divisions within individual countries and the people wanted everything yesterday you can imagine what the leaders have in hand. And last and by no means least is the all important succession issue. ASEAN has to develop and acceptable mode for this. Non interference in the internal affairs while is a good umbrella in the loner term there is a need for something more tangible that will allow for peaceful transision of power.

  4. Din: What I am asking has nothing to do with ASEAN. To be more accurately asked: how did Southeast Asia become a social fact? I suspect either it has some connections to the colonial history or that the American military strategists during WWII drew up that region and called it Southeast Asia. But I can’t find any studies to substantiate it.


    After 1967 when the FMs of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand met in Bangkok to form ASEAN. It was in also in the geography and history books for a long time before. Now we all think we are Southeast Asians(ASEANISTS).That is good. –Din Merican

  5. Din: Yes, that’s good. I’m just curious how the term came about. Prior to WW2 the Chinese called that region Nanyang, meaning South Sea, a name still widely used in Malaysia and Singapore. Only after the war that they started to use the term Southeast Asia. I am just curious how the name came about.

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