Your Royal Highnesses,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
On behalf of the Thai Delegation, I wish to join my ASEAN colleagues in extending our congratulations to His Excellency Mr. Domingo L. Siazon, Jr., Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Philippines, for his election as Chairman of the 31st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting. Secretary Siazon assumed Chairmanship of the 31st ASEAN Standing Committee during difficult times for ASEAN, but with his diplomatic skills and experience as well as his determination and perseverance, he has helped to provide a steady hand of leadership. I also wish to extend my congratulations to our newly elected Vice-Chairman, His Excellency Professor S. Jayakumar, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Singapore, and wish him the utmost success as he takes the helm at a time in which ASEAN must steer itself through stormy seas ahead.
Let me also welcome our distinguished colleagues from Cambodia in the hope that next year they will join us as a full member. In welcoming Papua New Guinea, we also wish to offer our deepest condolences for the heavy loss of life, the tremendous suffering and devastation caused by the recent tidal waves disaster.
Earlier this morning, we benefited from the thoughts and reflections of His Excellency President Joseph Ejercito Estrada. We shall draw inspiration from his remarks as we begin our deliberations over the next few days. Most importantly, I would also like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation to the Government and people of the Philippines for the warm welcome and generous hospitality accorded to me and my delegation since our arrival in Manila.
Looking at the events that have transpired over the past year, our meeting this year is definitely one of the most important we have had in recent years. Indeed, ASEAN finds itself at a crucial juncture. The challenges that we face are not only daunting in their magnitude but also because they are entirely of different nature from those that we have encountered in the past. What is more, it is certain that these challenges will be with us for some time to come. That we are now marking the anniversary of one of the most severe economic crises that we have gone through makes this reality even more poignant.
However, as the past thirty years have proven, we have not and will not be deterred. We must together face the changes that have taken place as an opportunity to lay the foundation for a stronger and more vibrant ASEAN. Together, we can and must move ASEAN forward. Together, we must think of the way forward. And together, and in spite of the economic crisis, we are continuing to make steady progress on a number of important fronts over the past year, though perhaps they have not all captured headlines.
Our efforts to help restore political stability in Cambodia, our efforts to raise the level of security in the region by securing the endorsement of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone by the Nuclear Weapon States and our efforts at the driving seat of the ASEAN Regional Forum have underscored ASEAN’s recognized role as a force for peace and stability in the region.
Cambodia deserves special mention because the elections are only two days away. ASEAN, through the Troika and along with the Friends of Cambodia, has helped the Cambodians to put in place a process that we all hope will lead to free, fair and credible elections in Cambodia. But the elections themselves are only part of the solution. Whether that process will work and whether political stability will last are in the hands of the Cambodians themselves. We can and shall lend a helping hand when needed, but it is entirely up to the Cambodians themselves to make it work and to make it last. The task is now up to the Cambodian people to speak their voices and exercise their voting rights. Cambodia will then rightfully take its place as our tenth member so that ASEAN will embrace all of Southeast Asia as one single family of nations.
But even with the admission of Cambodia, our task of regional integration has really just begun. We must remind ourselves that the process of political integration within ASEAN will depend to a significant degree on the success of our regional economic integration by which we shall have to embrace both old and new members alike. The current economic crisis gives us all the more reason to speed up and not slow down our economic integration by way of accelerating the implementation of AFTA and the ASEAN Industrial Cooperation Scheme. We should also look at additional schemes that will help to facilitate the flow of investments and movement of goods and products, such as the establishment of the ASEAN Investment Area which will be signed at the Hanoi Summit in December this year, as well as the promotion of intra-ASEAN transport, from which all of us stand to benefit.
As I have noted earlier, the economic and financial crisis of the past twelve months has already brought home to us the stark reality of interdependence in a globalised world. During this crucial juncture, it is therefore vital for us to recommit ourselves to the cause of ASEAN and to redouble our efforts to strengthen its cohesiveness and cooperation while, at the same time, developing innovative ideas to increase our organisation’s effectiveness.
We need stronger engagement among ASEAN and we also need equally to adapt ourselves to changing times. We must be flexible in our approach to the tasks at hand while steadfastly adhering to the long-standing principles for which ASEAN has stood and which have truly served us well. That, I believe, is the essence of the “ASEAN Way”.
There are those who have, rightly or wrongly, already expressed concern and doubts about the future strength and standing of ASEAN as a regional grouping as well as ASEAN’s ability to play a leading role in the international arena. The only way that we can respond to the critics and prove them wrong is by moving ASEAN into a higher gear of regionalism on a higher plane of regional cooperation,
After thirty years of existence, we in ASEAN must have the confidence and resolve to expand our horizons as set forth in the ASEAN Vision 2020.
The principle of non-interference is not the issue and has never been the issue. The name or terminology is also not of any real significance either. Let us instead focus on the real issues — what is at stake for ASEAN and what we together can do about it. For the real issue is how we can work together to strengthen ASEAN’s cohesiveness, relevance and effectiveness in dealing with the new challenges of a new millennium.
Can we deny the fact that the nature of security threats facing the region in the next century is likely to change ? Instead of armed aggression and conflict, pressing challenges in the form of economic disruptions and transnational problems, such as illicit drugs, international crime and environmental degradation will become more prominent. Like it or not, the issues of democracy and human rights are those that we have to increasingly deal with in our engagement with the outside world. How are we going to put ourselves on the offensive rather than always be on the receiving end ?
Can we deny the fact that with increased interdependence, events in one country can and have indeed affected other countries in ASEAN, We must also accept the fact that ASEAN unity does not mean that we all have to fit the same mould. Our ability to forge unity out of diversity has always been one of our fundamental strengths. Each nation should be able to adhere to the values and ideals that its society holds dear while keeping its commitments and responsibilities as a member of the ASEAN community.
These are the issues that we have to deal with. In today’s globalized world, the issues have become so complex and multi-dimensional that a new vision is needed. And dealing with these issues is not a matter of choice; it is a matter of necessity and urgency. It is not a matter of interfering in the affairs of another country. Rather, it is a matter of being open with one another on issues that impact on the region. It is rather a matter of taking more pro-active concern about one another and being supportive of one another whenever needed. It is a matter of enhancing our interactions for the benefit of all.
Regional economic imperatives will dictate change. We must be prepared to be in a position to meet the new challenges. ASEAN’s solidarity must be based on open dialogue.
The final point I would like to make is that strengthening the bonds of interaction among ASEAN means that ASEAN needs to be more people-centered. As we move towards the Twenty-First Century, ASEAN must be more in tune with and responsive to the aspirations of its peoples. For this reason, the greater priority given to functional cooperation, as agreed upon at the Fifth ASEAN Summit in Bangkok in December 1995, represents a major step in this direction. To date, we are pleased to note that functional programmes and activities, particularly in human resources development, education, science and technology, environment and social development, have been injected with new momentum.
Thailand is especially delighted at the progress in the setting up of the ASEAN Foundation last year at the Informal Summit in Kuala Lumpur, which would help promote greater awareness of ASEAN and interaction among the ASEAN Peoples. Thailand shares in the objectives of the Foundation to strengthen development of human resources as a means to contribute towards the development of society and the realization of human potential, We believe that emphasis on the human agenda and on the greater grass-roots involvement in ASEAN will add a new dimension of openness and vibrancy to our regional cooperation.
As we gather here in Manila, the tasks that face us are many and immense. But ASEAN has always risen to the occasion, The challenges that we have confronted together in the past have turned into opportunities for us to move ASEAN onto a higher plane of cooperation. Taking the ASEAN Vision 2020 as our inspiration, we now have to engage one another more as we move towards a concert of Southeast Asian nations, bonded together in partnership for prosperity and workin together towards a community of caring and open societies for ourselves and our posterity.