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Asean's new challenge, strengthening secretariat

The Phnom Penh incident, as it is known now, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In the past weeks, the Asean leaders and literally all organs of the 45-year grouping have been shaken to the core. Questions are being asked: Could the disastrous outcome be avoided? The answer is affirmative but with many

Indeed, the Asean Secretariat could have saved the faltering creditability of its members, at the very least the Asean chair, at the Phnom Penh conference, if only they knew how importance the Jakarta-based headquarters was to them. Lo and behold, they did not know that the under-fund and under staffed institution is a central mechanism of Asean. If allows, its chief and staffers can perform summersaults ending deadlocks and biases existing within the organization and members' deep mistrustful psyche. After all, the Secretary General and Asean Secretariat have the mediating mandates through their good office as well, not only administrative tasks.

Indeed, the current chair could easily seek, if he wished, the secretariat's assistance to find a common ground to end the impasse on the South China Sea and other sensitive issues. Instead, the chair took things in his hands—nothing wrong with that—and in the process his fingers were bitten and rid himself off the much cherished neutrality that required. In fact, Dr. Surin Pitsuwan and his staff, who have kept impartial watch of Asean's interests, were eager to help. They could have been the organization's saviors because they understand the P's and Q's of Asean's political games. They are also very familiar with all cross-sectoral activities and cooperation as well as the organization's numerous priorities.

As a former Thai foreign minister, Dr. Surin has brought with him a unique perspective of the secretariat, which was found a decade after Asean was formed in 1976. It was planned as a loose organization without any power just to coordinate programs and direct paper works flow from member countries. Not until 2008, the Secretary General and Secretariat has been given real power under the charter's mandate to keep up with the challenges. The amount of work that 76 international staffers have to do is just too overwhelming at present. Just imagine, they have to attend thousands of meetings each year observing, reading and digesting piles of documents and most importantly, note down members' dos and don'ts. Last year, they participated in at least in 1,200 meetings at various levels, nearly three meetings a day. During his five-year tenure, which is ending soon at the end of the year, Surin has travelled long distance to meet with the leaders from around the world and take parts in numerous meetings. His presence and views has increased the grouping's international profile and creditability. He knows the pulse of Asean, its strength and weaknesses. Most importantly, he knows what others expect of Asean.

Since the Phnom Penh incident, the focus of criticism was mostly blamed on the role of the chair. It was a bid unfair. Actually, the main culprit is also the lack of clarity of Asean rules and procedures and that of the Secretariat itself. The Asean leaders have in fact took for granted that their annual conferences would automatically end up with a joint communiqué any time. After all, for the past 45 years, that has been the modus operandi. They have never faced such a humiliation before. The South China Sea is in fact just a small symptom of bigger disease plaguing Asean that happened to surface at this juncture.

In retrospect, the Asean Secretariat should have played the central role when the members got stuck in their deliberations in Phnom Penh. Its staffers have the expertise and institutional knowledge that no others have especially those in rotational chairs and officials involved in the Asean affairs.

There are only 891 days left for the realization of the Asean Community. Time is running out. The member countries have yet to implement the required action plans in the three pillars—political, economic and social. The roadmap to the community-building has already pinpointed a total of 667 action lines. Granted all action lines are fully implemented, it does not mean that the community-building is complete. This is an evolutionary process which has to continue and engage the citizens of Asean.

Seriously, has any one bothered to ask how many countries have really looked into these schemes and worked out systematic implementation of these recommendations ahead of the deadline of Asean Community. When the deadline is approaching, the AC might very well be just an empty promise.

One of the biggest challenges of Asean is not what their leaders want to do but what their citizens inspired to be. The Secretary and Asean Secretariat have the duty to turn these inspirations into tangible outcomes. In fact, their leaders come and go but the 600 million Asean citizens will remain the cradle of the whole region. Asean is a still a top down organization even with the adoption of the charter in 2008. However, of late there have more consultations between the secretariat and stakeholders, which is now becoming indispensable. What virtues do they have if the Asean leaders simply do not understand the needs of their own peoples. For better or for worse, the future of Asean is in their hands. If they are proactive, they would drive the people-centered community building further. If they are passive, they would be held hostage by their leaders as being played out at annual conferences.

Frankly speaking the Asean leaders do not have the capacity to follow or implement the nitty-gritty of Asean projects at the regional level. In fact, how many Asean leaders really understand the concept of regionalism that is emerging, for instance? The Asean charter will be the subject of review next year when Brunei is chairing Asean. The role of Secretary General and the strengthening of Asean Secretariat will certainly be on top agenda.


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