Special Lecture on “Thailand’s Role in ASEAN”

by His Excellency Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand to Commemorate the 42nd Anniversary of ASEAN Saturday, 8 August 2009, Vithes Samosorn, Ministry of Foreign Affairs


Secretary-General of ASEAN,

Permanent Representatives and Ambassadors to ASEAN,


Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,  

It is indeed a great pleasure for me to be here this evening to speak on this very important occasion as we mark the 42nd Anniversary of the establishment of ASEAN on what is now designated as ASEAN Day.

Thinking of ASEAN, one of the most often asked questions or maybe a great topic for debate has been the success or failure of the organisation. I know that throughout 42 years, there have been critics. There have been those who have made comments about how they wish ASEAN as an organisation and ASEAN integration as a process to grow and to proceed much faster. But for me, and I think for the peoples of ASEAN, we knew right from the start that there is so much diversity within the region. And given the fact that we started off in a period where ideological differences or even conflicts were still present, I think the fact of the matter is, to have come such a long way in 42 years without conflict and maintaining peace and at the same time become a region where there’s been perhaps one of the fastest growth rates economically in the world, I would certainly say that ASEAN has been a great success.

It is a success that has been achieved through joint efforts of all the Member States. And Thailand is proud to have been part of that process and we are proud to have played some very vital roles during the growth and the increased integration of the region. For instance, we were part of the five founding Member States 42 years ago. And we were also very active in expanding ASEAN to include the remaining five Southeast Asian nations until of course eventually ASEAN became ten. We also initiated some of the very important processes that have made ASEAN integration more concrete, more relevant, and certainly more responsive to the needs of the region – whether it is the formation of the ASEAN Free Trade Area, AFTA, which continues to be a very important process and something that the Member States will continue to work on to make sure that economic integration proceeds until we achieve an Economic Community; and also creating a forum such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, which not only provides a forum where meaningful discussions and constructive dialogue can take place, not just among Member States, but also other important players on the global stage to discuss security issues. And again only last month, where we had this meeting in Phuket, it confirms that ASEAN is not only relevant in terms of our own issues that are pertinent to the world, but also we can provide a relevant forum for issues that actually lie beyond the region. Thailand is very proud to have been part of all this and to have made these very important contributions.

But having said that ASEAN is a success and that we have come a long way, it is also true to say that we still have a long way to go. I remember Dr. Surin when he was not ASEAN Secretary-General. He always urged all of us to move a little faster. But since he became ASEAN Secretary-General, often he now has to say to the Leaders that let’s go a little bit slower. So I know that that reflects the reality that we do need to integrate faster, but at the same time we need to be realistic to know that moving so fast may not be so practical given such diversity within the region.

Nevertheless, we do stand at this very critical juncture for ASEAN. We now have a new Charter in place that will make the organisation now truly rules-based and more effective in enforcing what has been agreed among Member States. And we know that to make that Charter more concrete, we have to move on the three pillars that are critical to supporting and building an ASEAN Community – whether it is on the political and security front, the economic front, or the socio-cultural front. All these are still huge and important tasks that we need to carry out. But we have set a date – and that is the year 2015, where all this must be achieved. And we know failure to achieve all that within this timeframe would risk the relevance and credibility of the region and of this organisation. So I can tell you that, during the short time that I have been acting as ASEAN Chair, about half a year, I have seen a sense of urgency among all Leaders that we make sure that the vision of the Community is realised within the timeframe that we have set out.

And we are already moving on a number of fronts. By this October, we hope to have established a human rights body. Not an easy issue given the differences in the political systems and diversity within the region. But already at the Ministerial level, we have agreed on a terms of reference; adhered to the principles that we have said that we would adhere to, which is a body that will be credible, realistic and also evolutionary; which means we set the task of promotion and the raising of awareness on human rights issues among Member States as immediate tasks that we need to perform; and then subsequently, we shall be able to strengthen the protection part; and all this will be done in an evolutionary and step-by-step manner. This is the kind of commitment that shows the determination and a sense of purpose that all Member States are now very clear on. In October also, we hope to have achieved a clear dispute settlement mechanism, which will make our promise of a rules-based organisation concrete. These are very important steps and is evidence that ASEAN continues to move forward because we know that there are very important challenges.

But it’s not just the substance that I have seen change and evolve over the last 42 years, the nature of the process itself. I remember critics used to say that ASEAN meetings were about ASEAN Leaders meeting and playing golf and perhaps eating durians. But in February, we didn’t meet among ourselves. Actually, we didn’t even play golf. We met representatives of youth, of civil society, of parliament – the representatives of ASEAN peoples. And we hope now that that becomes a regular fixture that is formalised into future Summit meetings. We have seen that the participation concerning ASEAN is no longer confined to leaders, to governments, or even politicians. What you have just witnessed, with all these students and schoolchildren all taking part now in an active campaign to raise awareness of our people, especially the newer generations, show that we are really moving towards a people-centred Community. And of course just now, the establishment of an ASEAN Association in Thailand is yet another instance where you see clearly that the participation of ASEAN people now really matters to the process of ASEAN integration. There are also other bits and pieces that we could allude to. Even the ASEAN Anthem – I don’t know how many versions of it now – is something that would become familiar more and more to ASEAN people. And this is because we know that, in the end, to achieve our vision of ASEAN Community and to make it effective and to make it responsive to the needs of the peoples of ASEAN, we know that it cannot be achieved through leaders and governments only; and that we have to engage – whether it’s the business sector, the private sector, the media, civil society, the younger generations, to make sure that, in the end, we don’t just achieve what we call an ASEAN Community, but make our peoples feel that we are truly ASEAN citizens. And that is a vision that we will strive to achieve within the next six years.

And we are proud to say that we have not only made progress among ourselves, but the engagement of our Dialogue Partners and now the representation of the region at various forums like the G-20 show that ASEAN matters not just to the ten Southeast Asian nations, but also the rest of the world. And we intend to play our part and show our responsibilities to the global challenges – whether there are issues about the global economic environment; whether it’s about a pandemic; whether it’s the issues that matter now to the global community, such as human rights or the environment in general. ASEAN now know that we must play our part. And already we have set some examples. During the current global economic crisis, we moved first to expand the Chiang Mai Initiative and multilateralise it, to show to the world that each respective region can play its own part to protect the countries in the region against the volatility of the global economic system – something which we believe will occur more and more often, that volatility. You also see us moving forward with our Dialogue Partners on investment in infrastructure, where I hope that a fund will be set up called the ASEAN Infrastructure Investment Fund; and also on issues such as food and energy security, where again we hope to sign agreements with our Dialogue Partners in October.

Nevertheless, during the Ministerial Meeting in Phuket, I have also said that we really have to work hard to achieve our vision to characterise the Community that we have set out to achieve in 2015. I said that the ASEAN Community must be a “Community of Action” which means that we have to be able to decide and move speedily to respond to whatever challenges and problems that may occur and that affect the peoples of ASEAN. Having meetings, having agreements will not be enough. We have to make sure that they are followed through; that real actions are being taken; and that they are being felt by all the local communities within ASEAN. Secondly, it is clear that we cannot achieve either the Economic Community or the Socio-Cultural Community without making ASEAN a “Community of Connectivity” – physical infrastructure, economic and cultural exchanges. We have to make sure that all these networks are created so that they provide opportunities for all the ASEAN people – trade, investment, jobs, or whatever, which will only make ASEAN peoples feel closer and see more about what we have in common than perhaps the differences and diversity that have often been highlighted. And finally of course, the Community must be a “Community of and for the Peoples of ASEAN,” which means that the rights of ASEAN citizens will be respected; the needs of ASEAN peoples will be attended to; and that the ASEAN people can feel that ASEAN will be bringing them peace and prosperity.

As Chair of ASEAN, I am confident that, given the urgency of the need to move forward, the clear determination of the ASEAN Leaders now, and the global environment which makes all of us recognise that most of the problems now do not respect borders, we will move to achieve such a vision. And I am also confident that, when we hand over the Chairmanship to Viet Nam, she will be able to continue on the important agenda that we have been pursuing over this last year. So in conclusion I would say that ASEAN is now a single house, where more than 580 million people are residing. And although these peoples continue to be different, diverse; they have different strengths; they have some weaknesses. But they are now determined to live together, to seek complementarities, to cooperate, and put in that collective effort for the good of all of us. And the three pillars and the three characteristics that I have mentioned will be important agendas for every single one of us. The prosperity, the peace and a sense of community, once again I emphasise, can only be achieved if we all play our part. And “we” here do not just mean governments, politicians, businessmen, but every single one of us as ASEAN citizens. And we have to do all we can to facilitate the participation of our people, to overcome barriers such as languages or whatever other barriers that remain. Let me also end by saying that I have great confidence also in the Secretary-General, Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, who has been forever active in pursuing ASEAN matters and in his responsibilities now I’m sure he would want to leave a very strong impression of what the ASEAN Secretariat can achieve under the new Charter. Once again, I thank all of you who I count as “friends of ASEAN” and I hope that the success of ASEAN will continue at an even more rapid pace. Thank you very much.