It was only after the end of the third Indochina War in 1975 that the three different groups gradually came together under one roof. But the process of regional integration was cut short by Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia on Christmas Eve, 1978. It would take another 14 years before the rift was healed. Brunei joined Asean in 1984 right after its independence - a good move for a rich oil state the size of Phuket Island. But it took Vietnam almost another two decades to join Asean in 1995. Vietnam had to weigh the pros and cons of becoming Asean's seventh member, as there had been lots of historical baggage between Asean and Vietnam for the past five decades.
Before Vietnam decided to join Asean, Hanoi had tons of questions to ask concerning every aspect of Asean. It was natural for Asean to take in its former enemy. After all, Vietnam was a big power within Indochina and it has the region's second largest population (currently 84 million). Hanoi also wanted to know what benefits Vietnam would receive as a member? How much of a membership fee would it have to pay?
Ironically, it was Asean's war of attrition with Vietnam over its occupation of Cambodia that made the grouping famous on the global stage. As a rookie journalist in 1980, I had to report on Asean diplomatic efforts, which started in 1979, each and every year for the following 13 years. Asean had to convince the UN to continuously condemn Vietnam and its occupation of Cambodia at the UN General Assembly in New York. UN members continued to support Asean by recognising the coalition government of Cambodia, which consisted of the Khmer Rouge, Funcipec (under Prince Norodom Ranariddh) and the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (under former Prime Minister Son Sann).
From 1979 to 1992, Asean acted as one voice; there was none of the bickering among its members that happens now. Asean ambassadors spoke strongly every year at UN general assemblies against the foreign occupation of Cambodia. Each year, Asean dispatched teams of diplomats travelling around the world, especially to Africa and Latin America, to lobby for support at the UN. All members united to help Thailand as a frontline state against Vietnam and subsequently succeeded in forcing Vietnamese troops out of Cambodia. When a hard-won peace came to Cambodia, everybody thought that Asean as an organisation would die for good, as it had no reason to go on. In other words, it would become a victim of its own success. The Cambodian conflict had been Asean's raison d'etre for all these years.
Two years after Vietnam joined Asean in 1995, Burma became the seventh member. What followed for the next 10 years would be considered disastrous for Asean as a whole. Admitting Burma turned out to be the biggest mistake the group has ever made. Back in 1997, the Burmese situation was politicised as an East-West issue. Asean wanted Burma in the grouping while the West argued that it would damage Asean's reputation and impact on the grouping's relations with dialogue partners. In more ways than one, Asean leaders still have a difficult time admitting that Burma's membership has divided and tarnished Asean. The logic at the time was that it would be better to incorporate the rest of Southeast Asia, instead of leaving them alone. After all, Burma is located at a strategic crossroads, which allows China to have access to two oceans, the Indian and Pacific. At the time, Asean thought that Burma's inclusion into Asean would check China's growing influence inside the country and mainland Southeast Asia. It was a miscalculation because today China is not only the most influential foreign country inside Burma, its influence increases by the day.
After Asean began to grow, its members turned their focus to economic cooperation. In 1992, at the Singapore summit, Asean leaders got together and pledged to create a regional free-trade area that would rival the European Union. It was a brave move to jumpstart Asean on much needed economic cooperation measures otherwise there would be economic gaps. But Asean economic integration immediately faced difficulties because of the group's expansion after Vietnam, Burma, Laos and Cambodia joined Asean. With less developed economies, Asean has to divide the free trade area into two groups, one for the old members and the other for the new members with different deadlines. In fact, today, most goods passed among the six core Asean countries are duty free. New members have to wait for 2015 for this to be the case with them.
When Laos and Cambodia joined Asean in 1999 it was the dream of Asean's founding fathers to create one Southeast Asia under one roof. Credit must be given to Asean for accomplishing this objective. However, it comes at great price. A bigger Asean means bigger problems; more members means more diversity. In Asean, the common motto is "diversity in unity".
Asean is a top-down organisation. It is a place for elite members who do not get bored with having to meet their peers dozens of times every year. On the average, there are around 750 Asean meetings at all levels each year. So, on the average, there are more than two meetings on any given day on Asean activities in any Asean country or with dialogue partners. Asean officials love to meet and these meetings often consist of them playing golf, singing karaoke and enjoying durian, the stinky fruit of Thailand.
Asean leaders respond well to crisis. Without a crisis, they seldom work closely together. Preventive practices are not the best practice in Asean. For instance, when the region faced the Sars back in 2003, Asean leaders met in Bangkok with their East Asian colleagues to come out with measures to prevent the disease from spreading.
Again, when Apec members were about to agree on a tariff cut at their meeting in Shanghai in 2001, Asean leaders decided to accelerate the realisation of their free-trade area among core members. So, there is a pattern there that suggests Asean responds better in times of crisis. When "clear and present danger" is involved, Asean acts. So, it is a very top-down organisation.
Asean is a very proud organisation because it claims that its members have never fought in a war with one another while part of the group, which is true. But in recent years, Thailand and Burma have fought border wars with one another. Burmese patrol boats shot at Thai fishing boats. That did not count because it was not all out war.
Asean often talks a lot of the grouping's solidarity and commonality. But recent squabbling between member groups - Malaysia and Singapore over the price of water, Indonesia and Singapore over the sale of sand, as well as Thailand and Singapore over telecom deals - shows that business transactions among Asean countries should be more transparent and received broad-based backing instead of being based on the decision of leaders alone. This has been a bit embarrassing for Asean as it comes ahead of the organisation's 40th anniversary.
In 1995, when Thailand proposed the idea of setting up the Asean People's Council, other Asean countries were shocked because they believed such an assembly would be a marketplace for non-government officials, activists and human- rights advocates who would propose radical ideas. Vietnam, Singapore and Brunei immediately shot down the proposal.
It was not until the year 2000, when academic communities from Asean think-tanks, which is known as track two, got together and thought that the time has come to form the Asean People's Assembly as a forum to exchange views among non-government sectors. They hoped that their views and resolutions would serve as inputs for the leaders. They were wrong because for many years, Asean leaders refused to take any thing from them.
In the past few years, Asean leaders gradually have become more humble and expressed the wish to hear more from Asean civil society organisations (CSO) and grassroots groups. At the Asean summit in Kuala Lumpur in 2005, leaders met for the first time with CSO representatives. But it did not last very long. The CSO representatives were carefully selected by the host country. In many Asean members there are no non-governmental organisations or any activists - just government-sponsored social units or volunteer groups.
In the upcoming summit in Singapore, CSO representatives will have a private session with Asean leaders as they did in Malaysia and the Philippines. The host is trying to have multiple meetings among Asean CSO, mostly outside Singapore. The Asean People's Assembly will meet in Manila at the end of October, while Solidarity for Asian People's Advocacy (SAPA) wants to meet in Singapore. But the problem is, SAPA wants a guarantee from the host that nobody would be turned down.
Asean still remains a top-down organisation with leaders making all the decisions. Attempts have been made to shake the top but to no avail. It is hopeful that in the future Asean leaders will feel more comfortable with CSO representatives and consult more with them either officially or informally. As leaders, they often think they know the problems of their countries better than the CSO communities. But history has shown that leaders alone do not often have the kind of intimate knowledge of issues and problems that CSO people have been working on.
Although Asean members agreed in 1993 in Bangkok to establish a regional human-rights mechanism, nothing has happened since then - enough for the so-called Asean promise. Asia remains the only region in the world that does not have such a mechanism. It is very sad. But there was good news last week in Manila when Asean foreign ministers agreed that there should be a human-rights body to promote and protect human rights in the Asean Charter. Of course, senior officials have to work on terms of reference, which could mean another battle among Asean members.
Without a regional tool, human-rights violations will continue in member countries. A common regional approach would help if member states were willing to comply. People-oriented Asean can be a reality if the basic human rights of ordinary Asean citizens are guaranteed and the rule of law is strictly observed.
Something in between
Asean is drafting its charter. The first rough draft has been completed and now is being vetted by the foreign ministers, who will have more to say when they meet again in New York late September on the sidelines of their participation in the UN. The charter is an important document because it is a law-binding document which will turn Asean into a rule-based organisation. In the past, Asean has not had a mechanism to enforce compliance with agreements or regulations. When any member refuses to comply, nobody can say anything, let alone reprimand that member.
One should not expect too much of the Asean Charter. It will not be an earth-shaking charter because half of Asean's members are still governed by undemocratic countries. It is not surprising that all principles of non-interference will be there and remain unchanged. What has changed is the tone and the increased willingness to be more assertive in case members do not comply with Asean objectives. But of course to reach the level of having a unified voice, members must reach a consensus. The Asean charter did mention about measures to punish members who fail to comply with Asean objectives. But these are very mild, there is no expulsion as there would be in other regional groupings. The drafters refused to take in any recommendation from the Eminent Persons Group for the Asean charter.
For the past four decades, Asean has made all its decisions by consensus. Any member can block a decision. So, the decision is usually based on the lowest common denominator. Before the expansion, Indonesia was seen as the key barrier for intra-Asean cooperation related to the economy and trade. Since 1998, the grouping's largest country has come a democracy, albeit fragile.
It is a big boost for Asean. Now Jakarta has become a major driving force to push for openness in Asean and democratic development.
Asean should learn from the best practices of other regional organisations including the EU and the African Union (AU). In the case of the AU, the African leaders believe that their conflicts must be settled by themselves. They have set up peacekeeping forces to cope with several conflicts and crises. The African leaders are different from their Asean colleagues in that they believe in intervening in conflicts.
In the future, Asean with its 10 members could expand further. East Timor will certainly become the 11th member of Asean. But it will take some time before the world's newest country can join the grouping. Asean has allowed officials from East Timor to attend functions and meetings in Asean to prepare for the country's eventual membership. Furthermore, Papua New Guinea, which has been an observer of Asean since 1986, has expressed a desire to join Asean. This would create a huge headache for Asean, as Papua New Guinea is in the South Pacific. Who knows, in decades ahead, Asean could be expanded to encompass the whole of Asia, known as the Asian Community.