On 8 August 1967 the “Bangkok Declaration” gave birth to ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an organization that would unite five countries in a joint effort to promote economic co-operation and the welfare of their peoples.
After repeated unsuccessful attempts in the past, this event was a unique achievement, ending the separation and aloofness of the countries of this region that had resulted from colonial times when they were forced by the colonial masters to live in cloisons etanches, shunning contact with the neighboring countries.
In effect this historical event represented the culmination of the decolonization process that had started after World War II. Following their victory in the war, the colonial powers tried their best to maintain the status quo. However, since they had not even been able to ensure the protection of their territories against the Japanese invasion, how could they justify their claim to control them again. In their defeat, the Japanese had effectively undermined colonial rule by granting some form of autonomy or even independence to the territories they had earlier invaded, thus sowing the seeds of freedom from the colonial masters. The process of decolonization, inside and outside the United Nations, then advanced at a fast pace and led to the emergence of a number of independent and sovereign nations.
This created an entirely novel situation which necessitated new measures and structures. Thailand, as the only nation which had been spared the plight of colonial subjection thanks to the wisdom and political skill of its Monarchs, felt it a duty to deal with the new contingencies. Pridi Panomyong, a former Prime Minister and statesman, tried to promote new relationships and co-operation within the region. I, myself, posted as the first Thai diplomat in the newly independent India, wrote a few articles advocating some form of regional co-operation in Southeast Asia. But the time was not yet propitious. The world was then divided by the Cold War into two rival camps vying for domination over the other, leading the newly emerging states to adopt a non-aligned stance.
When, as Foreign Minister, I was entrusted with the responsibility of Thailand’s foreign relations, I paid visits to neighboring countries to forge co-operative relationships in Southeast Asia. The results were, however, depressingly negative. Only an embryonic organization, ASA or the Association of Southeast Asia, grouping Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand could be set up. This took place in 1961. It was, nevertheless, the first organization for regional co-operation in Southeast Asia.
But why did this region need an organization for co-operation?
The reasons were numerous. The most important of them was the fact that, with the withdrawal of the colonial powers, there would have been a power vacuum which could have attracted outsiders to step in for political gains. As the colonial masters had discouraged any form of intra-regional contact, the idea of neighbors working together in a joint effort was thus to be encouraged.
Secondly, as many of us knew from experience, especially with the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization or SEATO, co-operation among disparate members located in distant lands could be ineffective. We had therefore to strive to build co-operation among those who lived close to one another and shared common interests.
Thirdly, the need to join forces became imperative for the Southeast Asian countries in order to be heard and to be effective. This was the truth that we sadly had to learn. The motivation for our efforts to band together was thus to strengthen our position and protect ourselves against Big Power rivalry.
Finally, it is common knowledge that co- operation and ultimately integration s.erve the interests of all- something that individual efforts can never achieve.
However, co-operation is easier said than done.
Soon after its establishment in 1961, ASA or the Association of Southeast Asia, the mini organization comprising only three members, ran into a snag. A territorial dispute, relating to a colonial legacy, erupted between the Philippines and Indonesia on the one hand and Malaysia on the other. The dispute centred on the fact that the British Administration, upon withdrawal from North Borneo (Sabah), had attributed jurisdiction of the territory to Malaysia. The konfrontasi, as the Indonesians called it, threatened to boil over into an international conflict as Malaysia asked its ally, Great Britain, to come to its support and British warships began to cruise along the coast of Sumatra. That unexpected turn of events caused the collapse of the fledgling ASA.
While ASA was paralysed by the dispute on Sabah, efforts continued to be made in Bangkok for the creation of another organization. Thus in 1966 a larger grouping, with East Asian nations like Japan and South Korea as well as Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, Taiwan, New Zealand, South Vietnam and Thailand, was established and known as ASPAC or the Asian and Pacific Council.
However, once again, calamity struck. ASPAC was afflicted by the vagaries of international politics. The admission of the People’s Republic of China and the eviction of the Republic of China or Taiwan made it impossible for some of the Council’s members to sit at the same conference table. ASPAC consequently folded up in 1975, marking another failure in regional co-operation.
With this new misfortune, Thailand, which had remained neutral in the Sabah dispute, turned its attention to the problem brewing to its south and took on a conciliatory role in the dispute. At the time, I had to ply between Jakarta, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur. After many attempts, our efforts paid off. Preferring Bangkok to Tokyo, the antagonists came to our capital city to effect their reconciliation.
At the banquet marking the reconciliation between the three disputants, I broached the idea of forming another organization for regional co-operation with Adam Malik, then Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Indonesia, the largest country of Southeast Asia. Malik agreed without hesitation but asked for time to talk with the powerful military circle of his government and also to normalize relations with Malaysia now that the confrontation was over. Meanwhile, the Thai Foreign Office prepared a draft charter of the new institution. Within a few months, everything was ready. I therefore invited the two former ASA members, Malaysia and the Philippines, and Indonesia, a key member, to a meeting in Bangkok. In addition, Singapore sent S. Rajaratnam, then Foreign Minister, to see me about joining the new set-up. Although the new organization was planned to comprise only the former ASA members plus Indonesia, Singapore’s request was favourably considered.
The first formal meeting of representatives from the five countries -Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand -was held in the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The group then retired to the seaside resort of Bangsaen (Pattaya did not exist at that time) where, combining work with leisure -golf to be more exact -the ASEAN charter was worked out. After a couple of days, using the Foreign Office draft as the basis, the Charter was ready. The participants returned to Bangkok for final approval of the draft, and on 8 August 1967, the Bangkok Declaration gave birth to ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. (ASEAN owes its name to Adam Malik, master in coining acronyms.)
The formation of ASEAN, the first successful attempt at forging regional co-operation, was actually inspired and guided by past events in many areas of the world including Southeast Asia itself. The fact that the Western powers, France and Britain, reneged on their pacts with Poland and Czechoslovakia promising protection against external aggression, was instrumental in drawing the attention of many countries to the credibility of assurances advanced by larger powers to smaller partners. The lesson drawn from such events encouraged weak nations to rely more on neighborly mutual support than on stronger states that serve their own national interests rather than those of smaller partners. For Thailand, in particular, its disappointing experience with SEATO taught it the lesson that it was useless and even dangerous to hitch its destiny to distant powers who may cut loose at any moment their ties and obligations with lesser and distant allies.
Another principle to which we anchored our faith was that our co-operation should deal with non-military matters. Attempts were made by some to launch us on the path of forming a military alliance. We resisted; wisely and correctly we stuck to our resolve to exclude military entanglement and remain safely on economic ground.
It should be put on record that, for many of us and for me in particular, our model has been and still is, the European Community, not because I was trained there, but because it is the most suitable form for us living in this part of the world -in spite of our parallel economies which are quite different from the European ones.
However, although we had clearly defined our aims and aspirations, international realities forced ASEAN to deviate from its original path. Several developments began to preoccupy ASEAN: the defeat and withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam and even from the mainland of Asia; the growing Vietnamese ambitions nurtured by the heady wine of victory; and the threat of Ho Chi Minh’s testament enjoining generations of Vietnamese to take over the rest of French Indochina in addition to the northeastern provinces of Thailand. Such developments forced ASEAN to turn its attention to more critical issues, like Cambodia, with the result that economic matters were almost entirely neglected and set aside.
Although not the original plan or intention of the founders of ASEAN, the effective and successful opposition to the implementation of Vietnam’s Grand Design, using only diplomatic and political means, won a great deal of plaudits and international credit, lifting it from an insignificant grouping of small countries to a much courted organization with which more important states now seek to have contact and dialogue. This has not been a negligible result. Indeed, ASEAN has greatly benefited from its deviated performance. ASEAN has now become a well established international fixture.
While applauding the successes of the Association, it is not my intention to pass over its weaknesses and shortcomings.
In the first place, the partnership spirit is not fully developed. Some parties seek to take more than to give even if in choosing the latter course, they may be able to take much more later on. Indeed, some of them do not hesitate to reduce their allotted share in projects, which, in their opinion, would not immediately bring the highest return, and thus they leave the burden to other members. In fact, it is common practice at many meetings, to jockey for selfish gains and advantages, not bearing in mind the general interest.
Nevertheless, the most serious shortcoming of the present system resides in the lack of political will as well as the lack of trust and sincerity towards one another. Yet each and everyone in their heart realizes that the advantages of ASEAN accrue to them all, and no one is thinking of leaving it.
Be that as it may, there is no readiness to admit to these shortcomings. That is why they put the blame for these deficiencies on the Secretariat which was set up by the governments themselves. Indeed, they distrust their subordinate officials to the point that they have not been willing, until recently, to appoint a Secretary-General of ASEAN, but only a Secretary-General in charge of the Secretariat.
Whatever problems exist at present, it is not my intention to dwell on them. They should, however, be resolved as expeditiously and effectively as possible. Personally, I prefer to look ahead and chart out a course that will lead to the objectives originally set out, so as to meet the expectations of our peoples.
The question we should ask is: ASEAN, quo vadis? Where do we go from here?
To this, I would reply that, first of all, we must set ourselves on the economic track we designed for the Association. This is necessary, even imperative, now more than ever as the world is being carved into powerful trade zones that deal with one another instead of with individual nations. At present, many countries outside our region are prodding us to integrate so that a single or more unified market will simplify and facilitate trade. That stands to reason and yet it was only in 1992 when all partners were convinced of the veracity of the proposition, when the then Thai Prime Minister, Anand Panyarachun, officially put the idea of an ASEAN Free Trade Area for discussion at the ASEAN Summit at Singapore. This meaningful move was logical since ASEAN was born in Thailand. However, it may take some fifteen years -as requested by some members -before a rudimentary single, integrated market comes into being.
For the months and years to come, gradual economic integration should be the credo for ASEAN if we want our enterprise to remain viable and continue to progress. Otherwise, it may become stagnant, unable to keep up with the pace of global activity. In spite of the Maastricht setback where the Danes voted against ratifying the Treaty on European Union, the European Community will most probably witness sustained expansion with the addition of former EFTA members as well as a number of Central and East European countries waiting to join. Meanwhile, NAFTA -the North American Free Trade Area -is coming into being, parallel to another one further south of the American continent. Likewise, on the southeast wing of Europe, Turkey is busy organizing some form of co-operation with the Islamic states of the Black Sea region of the defunct Soviet Union. All these activities should be sufficient indication that there is an urgent need for ASEAN to scrutinize itself, to update its role, and to implement wider and more serious organizational reforms -measures that are more meaningful than simply revamping the Secretariat.
On the non-technical side, political will and the spirit of partnership greatly need to be strengthened. In the future, competition will be severe. Political and economic pressure through the use of unilateral measures and threats will be resorted to without mercy by those who believe in brute force rather than civilized negotiations, a method which I call “crowbar” diplomacy proudly proposed by the “Amazon Warrior” before the legislative authorities of her country. Without appropriate adjustments and improvements, ASEAN may lose in the race for survival. And time is of the essence. ASEAN, in my opinion, does not have much leeway to idle or doodle. We should realize that two or three years are all we really have to implement urgent reforms.
While the pursuit of economic aims, as originally assigned, is essential, it does not mean the Association should abandon the considerable political gains it has made. On the contrary, ASEAN should continue to build upon the prestige and recognition that the outside world has accorded it. The results of ASEAN’s past performance especially in the resistance against Vietnamese military conquests and territorial expansionism, as well as the unqualified success in preserving peace and stability against all odds, are evident. Without doubt, ASEAN must strive to consolidate these assets which will complement its efforts on the economic side. In other words, the arduous task ahead for the Association will be a double- or triple- track endeavour which can be crowned with success provided that the weaknesses mentioned earlier are remedied and all the members, for their own good and that of their people, decide to carry out their duties and obligations with determination and a sense of purpose.
On the other hand, we should foresee that, in time to come, not only will ASEAN have to face the difficult task of creating and maintaining harmony among its members who have different views, different interests, and are of different stages of development -factors that in the past have made the adoption of needed reforms so uneasy -but ASEAN will also have to cope with the extremely complicated problems of dealing with hard-nosed opponents and interlocutors among the developed countries.
Finally, as with all organizations and entities, ASEAN will have to realize that it will not be nor can it be the ultimate creation. In truth, it should be only a stepping stone, a preliminary or intermediate stage in the process of international development. As the world progresses, so will ASEAN. At this juncture, everyone within the Association is aware of this reality. It should be prepared to move on to the next stage and raise its sights towards wider horizons. Some nascent possibilities like PECC (the Pacific Economic Co-operation Council) and APEC (the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum) are already in existence and more or less ready to bloom into something more stable and viable. So far, ASEAN members have not been willing to merge with the new entities, for various reasons, the most important of which may be a lack of conviction in the latters’ viability. Perhaps correctly, ASEAN members prefer to wait for more convincing indications assuring them of their capacity to survive. They continue to insist that ASEAN remains the nucleus from which peripheral relationships might radiate. This is not an unwise approach, apparently dictated by realism and caution in view of the audacity and increasing arrogance of certain major powers. A precipitous decision may result in undesirable entanglement or worse strangulation. Nevertheless, it may be wise for ASEAN not to lose sight of two important countries further to the south of Asia -Australia and New Zealand. If and when, they should express a clear willingness and desire to playa genuine partnership role, they should be welcome to join in any common endeavour. Their contribution will undoubtedly increase the strength and capacity of our existing and future co-operative undertakings, thus enabling us to meet with every chance of success in future encounters and negotiations with similar entities of other continents.
Lately, ASEAN has taken up a new assignment by engaging in discussions on security matters, more precisely on the Spratly Islands which are claimed by a number of nations, including Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China. The dispute threatened to erupt into an armed conflict after concessions for oil exploration were granted by the People’s Republic of China to some American oil companies. If one or more contestants resort to violence the dispute may degenerate into an ugly conflict thereby disrupting the peace and stability of the region. For that reason, Indonesia has already been moved to organize “workshop” discussions to explore the possibility of an acceptable solution.
In the light of the Spratly problem, the ASEAN members prepared a draft “Code of International Behaviour” which rules out any resort to violence. This draft was tabled at the Manila Ministerial Meeting in 1992 which approved it, as did the PRC and Vietnam, a dialogue partner and a signatory of the ASEAN Treaty on Amity and Co-operation respectively. This was what ASEAN could do, although it was only a moral gesture. Obviously, it could not obtain from the main parties to the dispute, a categorical pledge not to resort to violence. It may not be much. It was nevertheless better than nothing and certainly better than to bury one’s head in the sand. It is hoped that in this, as in any other case, wisdom and restraint will prevail.
What will ultimately be the fate of ASEAN?
To this question, I am ready to offer a candid reply, forgetting my role as a co-founder of the Association. My faith in the usefulness and “serviceability” of ASEAN cannot and will not diminish. If anything, members will find it beneficial to strengthen it. This is the rationale. In the post Cold War world, the Western countries find it fit to assert with little restraint or moderation their ascendancy and dominance, and some even seek to establish their hegemony over the entire world by claiming undisputed leadership in a so-called New World Order framework because of the absence of Soviet challenge and rivalry. The ultimate result would be that other nations will, ipso facto, become nothing but mere pawns of different size. The smaller ones will shrink still further and become even smaller and less significant. In fact, they will count less on the world scene than before the advent of the New World Order. Therefore, if they do not combine their minuscule strength, they will lose all meaning. Now the only place where they can do something with a measure of success is none other than the ASEAN forum. Therefore, for our own interests, we cannot afford to be oblivious of this plain truth and fail to act accordingly.
1 September 1992

The author was the Foreign Minister of Thailand when ASEAN was founded in Bangkok in 1967. This article was reprinted from The ASEAN Reader, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 1992.

Further readings in ASEAN History: S. Rajaratnam, “ASEAN: The Way Ahead”, in The ASEAN Reader, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 1992.