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November 21, 2012

ASEAN Secretary-General Defends Bloc, Despite Maritime Dispute

In Cambodia’s capital this week, the summit of leaders from Southeast Asian nations made limited progress on the South China Sea dispute. And, a resolution on human rights was criticized as not meeting international standards. But ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan is defending the bloc’s importance, saying there is evidence of progress.

When Thailand’s Surin Pitsuwan began his term as ASEAN’s chief diplomat in 2008, a brief document that was supposed to be a road map to peace in the South China Sea was already five years old.

​Now, with his time as secretary-general drawing to an end, that modest three-page declaration, known as the DOC, has lain mostly dormant while tensions in the maritime dispute continue to simmer.

“It was a very frustratingly slow process, from the DOC to the guidelines to implement that declaration 10 years ago," he said. "Here at this meeting we issued a joint statement commemorating the issuance of the DOC 10 years ago. But 10 years ago the situation was not the same. It was an issue of concern. But now it’s an issue of tension."

​​The DOC was a broad pledge to resolve the maritime dispute peacefully. The specifics on how to do so were meant to be contained in a Code of Conduct.  However, adopting such a document remains elusive.

Meanwhile, the issue has erupted into a fiercely political battle, which threatened to split ASEAN earlier this year.

This week in Phnom Penh, leaders agreed to commemorate the decade-old DOC - another commitment to peace, but not a giant leap forward.

“Commemorating is one way of trying to maintain the spirit of it, the importance and the significance of it that we have this DOC. And, right now every negotiation, every discussion is based on that piece of agreement called the DOC. Imagine if we don’t have that. Now, it’s going to be even more complicated, so we have DOC, we should be grateful keep it and, based on that document, we can move on. And, we want to move on officially, and openly, as soon as possible.”

Yet there is no realistic timeline on when ASEAN’s claimants and China, which asserts ownership of a sweeping stretch of the sea, will be able to do so.

That is a source of criticism for ASEAN as an organization - that it is slow to react;  that it’s reluctant or unable to enact change;  and that its members are perilously reticent to criticize each other.

But Surin says ASEAN members have evolved.

​​“So issues of let’s say reconciliation in Myanmar, when the leaders sat, the first item was, ‘Would Myanmar have anything to share with us? What’s going on in your country?’ That was an absolutely non-issue in the past. You can’t ask questions. You don’t volunteer information. Absolute. ‘It’s my issue, my problem. You don’t need to know.’

“Well, now people volunteer, people are being asked," he went on to say. "Leaders are being encouraged to share the problems that you have. I think [it is] a natural process. Integration will bring down that rigidity.”

Surin says Burma, at first, did not want to publicly comment on the Rohingya issue. In the end, ASEAN chair Cambodia included a brief paragraph about the ongoing ethnic tension in Burma’s Rakhine State in its final statement - the official record of discussions and decisions taken during the summit.

Its pledges of regional humanitarian support were a watered-down offering. But, Surin says even five years ago, merely acknowledging the problem in a public way could have been unthinkable.