ASEAN is pleased that its oldest Dialogue Partner is committed to the region, as one of Australia’s best universities marks its Southeast Asia Institute.

Speaking at the launch of the institute at the Australian National University, ASEAN Secretary-General, Dr Surin Pitsuwan gave a condensed historical development of the grouping, and where it is heading.

“ASEAN has developed step-by-step. We used to attract external manufacturers who came here, set up factories, to make goods for the external markets,” he said. But as prosperity and development takes root in Southeast Asia, “ASEAN has come to a stage where we need to work as a single production base, and as a single consumer market to stay relevant”.

Drawing on his rich experience as a senior diplomat, former Foreign Minister of Thailand, and an accomplished academic, the Southeast Asian leader kept his riveted with interesting nuggets of history and observation.

Illustrating ASEAN’s unique way of resolving issues, he described Thailand’s overlapping claims with Cambodia as “two Buddhist countries claiming one Hindu temple, but they are willing to allow two Muslims to mediate”.

As laughter subsided, Dr Surin pointed out that is just one way which ASEAN member States – or AMS to ASEAN staff – respects the spirit of the community, and are willing to do their best to resolve differences.

Thailand and Cambodia made headlines in 2011, when troops skirmished in the border area over the 11th-century Preah Vihear Temple. Indonesia was chair of ASEAN then, and its Foreign Minister, Dr Marty Natalegawa worked with Dr Surin to calm tempers.

Looking ahead, Dr Surin said it is pertinent that ASEAN stay focused and united, as that will be essential as major global players shift their interest to the region.

Dr Surin also made a courtesy call on Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (see picture).

The two leaders discussed about the preparations for the 7th East Asia Summit, which will be held in Phnom Penh next month.

Australia will mark the 40th anniversary of bilateral relations with ASEAN in 2014. The two sides enjoy close ties as Canberra has a very good relationship with several AMS such as Singapore.

Noting the huge potential and the friendship between the two sides, Dr Surin urged his audience at the ANU that “now Australia has found ASEAN again, please do not lose it”.