08 Agustus 2018 By Publikasi IIS

[COMMENTARIES] Making Sense of ASEAN Leaders and Secretariat’s Role in Democratization

[COMMENTARIES] Making Sense of ASEAN Leaders and Secretariat’s Role in Democratization

Today, 8 August 2018, marks 51 years of the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In early August 1967, Adam Malik, Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia, Narcisco Ramos of the Philippines, S. Rajaratnam of Singapore, and Thanat Khoman of Thailand finalized the decision to establish ASEAN in a golf course in Bangsaen, Thailand. Severino defines that moment as “tie-less on easy chair” where the delegates were playing golf in the morning, meeting in the afternoon, and having an informal dinner in the evening (Severino, 2006). On August the 8th, everything was set for the signing of the declaration in Bangkok. Under the order of Suharto, Adam Malik engaged series of talks with Malaysian leaders to end Konfrontasi, negotiating peace and further assessing the possibility to establish an association to secure peaceful coexistence between Southeast Asian states. It was initially established to contain the spread of communism during the Cold War. Therefore, ASEAN’s nature was a political mean in ensuring regional security. Khoo How San argues that ASEAN’s role is colloquially similar to a neighborhood watch group that primarily serves to ensure  regional stability (Khoo, 2000).

From traditional security perspective, we might say that ASEAN has accomplished its main function by the absence of wars. However, after the end of Cold War, regionalisms in the world have expanded its scope of cooperation. ASEAN further developed its three pillars of cooperations on Political and Security, Economic, and Socio-Culture. As proposed by Dr. Rizal Sukma, democracy should also be one of ASEAN’s agenda (Sukma, 2009). Last year, our institute published a book for commemorating 50 years anniversary of ASEAN entitled 50 Years of Amity and Enmity: The Politics of ASEAN Cooperation edited by Dr. Poppy S. Winanti and me. From this book, we have learned that albeit ASEAN has successfully initiated and implement sectoral cooperations, there are still challenges and hindrances towards deeper cooperation.

At the moment, ASEAN in Political and Security sector shows unimpressive development. ASEAN failed twice in formulating joint communiqué in pressuring China on South China Sea. ASEAN member states performance in democracy and civil liberties are still flawed (Index of Democracy, 2017; Freedom in the World Index, 2017). In economic sector, official ASEAN scorecarding has not been publicized since 2011, and it is projected by scholars for only reaching 79.5% of ASEAN Economic Community targets in 2016 (Menon & Melendez, 2018). We believe that the AEC scorecard has to be made public again. There are some peculiarities in the Socio-Cultural sector in which disaster management and haze pollution problems were placed under. We can argue that the decision to put disaster management under ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community reflects an approach to address these issues in a fashion that detach these case’s association with politics considering that ASEAN is still upholding consensus and non-interference principle—the ASEAN Way. ASEAN traditionally uphold the concept of non-interference because it is attractive for less-democratic regimes. As for example, Myanmar military junta saw ASEAN could help them to gain more presence and legitimacy when they joined the Association in 1997 (McCarthy, 2008). Examining these challenges, we argue that lack of democratization is the source of ineffective monitoring and unprogressive milieus in Southeast Asian regionalism.

We would like to reflect today’s’ development and 51 years of ASEAN. We believe that there are momentums and opportunities provided by political transformations and economic growth in the region lately. Economic development in Southeast Asia has produced more middle class and well-informed citizens. Recent political development in Myanmar and Malaysia indicated certain degrees of political openness.

Recreating Momentum for Changes

The key for a better ASEAN lays within the domestic politics of its member states. The more democratic a society is the more options for the people to help authority to improve policies. It works not only in domestic level but also in foreign policies and regionalism. By having people able to evaluate, ASEAN would be better monitored. In a democratic condition, member states’ leaders will try harder to prove its constituencies that they deliver people’s foreign policy aspirations regarding ASEAN.

Therefore, the role of pro-democracy diplomats and ASEAN bureaucrats in promoting democracy is also pivotal. More supports have to be given to young Indonesian diplomats that work in inducing democratic values, as well as previously performed by diplomats from the Philippines and Thailand. In Malaysia, if the political deal between Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim works well, then we might see the return of Anwar, a pro-democracy leader that once supported the idea to enrich the ASEAN Way.

The agenda of redefining ASEAN Way in order to support democratization could only be pursued if ASEAN has progressive national leaders and a stronger secretariat. McCarthy highlighted the evolving concept to challenge traditional approach on ASEAN Way was coming from innovative leaders. Anwar Ibrahim develops the terminology of “Constructive Intervention” during his term as the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. The idea was to give opportunity for ASEAN member states to intervene in other countries domestic affairs. According to Anwar, it is necessary due to the enlargement of ASEAN. The logic was that some new members (i.e. Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia) will soon join the Association and most of them were undemocratic. This proposal was rejected.

To actualize the idea, the then Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan, proposed the idea of “Flexible Engagement.” The words “Frank and open discussion” and “A dose of peer pressure or friendly pressure” could explain what Flexible Engagement is (Katanyuu, 2006). This enables member states to discuss or criticize other member state’s domestic affair if there is a cross-border implication. Again, this proposal was rejected. As an alternative of this proposal, “Enhanced Interaction” was introduced to give rooms for member states to criticize other ASEAN member state. However ASEAN, as an institution, is prohibited to do so.

Again in 2003, initiated by Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration when Surin Pitsuwan introduced Thailand’s foreign policy of “Forward Engagement” (Katanyuu, 2006). Under this framework, Thailand proposed a “road map” for reconciliation and democracy in Burma through series of consultations. Although that act was a sole foreign policy by Thailand, we witness that a figure like Surin Pitsuwan could drive a positive support for democracy as what Anwar Ibrahim offered.

What we could replicate today is to use Surin Pitsuwan’s strategy to incept new concepts and universal values into less sensitive issues such as humanitarian actions and disaster management. In 2008, Surin Pitsuwan as Secretary-General of ASEAN induced the norm of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) to response Myanmar’s Cyclone Nargis. ASEAN successfully convinced Myanmar to be more open to humanitarian actions by the international community. It leads to confidence building prior to the democratization of Myanmar in 2010. Reflecting from this, ASEAN Secretariat should not be a mere good office

Lastly, supporting democratization in ASEAN also means to strengthen democracy at home. Having ASEAN effectively overlook our democracy, it is less likely for our elites and leaders to pursue authoritarian or non-democratic measures at home.


  • Katanyuu, R. (2006). Beyond Non-Interference in ASEAN: The Association’s Role in Myanmar’s National Reconciliation and Democratization. Asian Survey, 825-845.
  • Koo, H.S. (2000). ASEAN as a “Neighborhood Watch Group.” Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 22, No. 2, 279-301.
  • McCharty, S. (2008). Burma and ASEAN: Estranged Bedfellows. Asian Survey , 911-935.
  • Menon, J. & Melendez, A. C. (2018). Realizing an ASEAN Economic Community: Progress and Remaining Challenge. The Singapore Economic Review, Vol. 63, No. 1.
  • Severino, R. C. (2006). Southeast Asia in Search of an ASEAN Community: Insights from the Former ASEAN Secretary General . Singapore: ISEAS.
  • Sukma, R. (2009). Political Development: A Democracy Agenda for ASEAN? In D. K. Emmerson, Hard Choices: Security, Democracy, and Regionalism in Southeast Asia (pp. 135-150). Singapore: ISEAS.
Muhammad Rum, IMAS Secretary of Department of International Relations UGM