Published on August 6, 2007
They were hammering out the final text of the Bangkok Declaration.
This was to form an organisation, tentatively known as the Southeast Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SEAARC.
"The name sounded good to me, like a crescent moon covering Southeast Asia," a retired diplomat who helped draft the declaration said.
"But Adam Malik said at the end the pronunciation of the acronym in Malayu didn't sound good," he said. "Why don't we use Asean instead. It sounds better. Everybody agreed," Sompong Sucharitkul told The Nation in a rare interview.
Thus, Asean was born.
Thailand's then foreign minister Thanat Khoman, Philippine foreign secretary Marciso Ramos, Singapore foreign minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam and Malaysian deputy prime minister Tengu Abdul Razak signed the document establishing the region's most powerful grouping on August 8 at Saranrom Palace, the former home of the Foreign Ministry near the Royal Palace.
Sompong, one Thanat's closest aides, revealed two ministers from Sri Lanka were waiting in an adjacent room at the Laem Thaen meeting.
"I remember one was an economics minister. He waited there anxiously for a signal to join the discussion; but it never came."
"It was Rajaratnam of Singapore who opposed the inclusion of Sri Lanka," the 75-year-old retired international-law professor said.
"He argued the country's domestic situation was unstable and there would be trouble. Not good for a new organisation," he quoted the first Singapore foreign minister saying.
Rajaratnam was born in Sri Lanka of Tamil descent but taken to Malaya shortly after by his father, who had emigrated to the colony.
Thailand and the other founding members did not oppose barring Sri Lanka.
"Indeed, we would have welcomed Sri Lanka as a member. If you look at the map, it's not far from Southeast Asia. It is also a Buddhist nation," he added.
But, the idea of having all 10 Southeast Asian nations together was always at the back of the minds of the founders - even though, at that time, the region was divided into three: non-communist Southeast Asia, communist Indochina and isolated Burma.
"We knew in our hearts they would be part of Asean one day. That was why, towards the end of the Bangkok Declaration, we invited all countries of Southeast Asia to join," he explained.
The expansion of Asean came in 1984 when Brunei joined, followed by Vietnam in 1995 and Burma and Laos in 1997. Cambodia signed up in 2000.
It is interesting to note Asean is poised to admit East Timor, the world's newest independent nation. It will be the 11th and final member.
This implies Asean will turn down the application of Papua New Guinea. It has had observer status since 1976.
The veteran diplomat said credit must be given to Thanat who forged the idea of a regional organisation, following years of conflict and disturbance.
Thanat, the only surviving signatory, is unavailable for comment as a result of poor health.
The so-called konfrontasi between Indonesia and Malaysia and the crisis between Malaysia and the Philippines were still fresh in the memory.
"Thailand was in a position to forward and work for the creation of Asean", he said. "We were an independent nation and had friendships with all non-communist neighbours," he added. "They liked to use the good offices of Thailand."
Asean was preceded by an organisation called the Association of Southeast Asia, or ASA, an alliance consisting of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand and formed in 1961 but disbanded a year later.
"We were able to persuade Indonesia, which had just emerged from the crisis of 1965 to be part of Asean," he added.
Indonesia had 120 million people at the time - a mammoth country. Sompong recalled Thanat asking him to put together the draft of the declaration, which was then sent to the all original members. Indonesia was the only country to make amendments and they all pertained to foreign military bases. At that time, all members including Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand had foreign bases and were signatories of Western military alliances.
In retrospect, Sompong said Asean has progressed at the right pace, without imposing rapid change on members.
"The Bangkok Declaration had everything."
Summing up Asean's raison d'?tre he quotes Rajaratnam: "If we do not hang together, we of Asean will hang separately."