Back in 1967, five founding fathers of ASEAN including Adam Malik (Indonesia), Tun Abdul Razak (Malaysia), Narciso E. Ramos (Philippines), S. Rajaratnam (Singapore), and Thanat Khoman (Thailand) gathered at Laem Taen, Bang Saen, Chon Buri Province, to discuss the future of Southeast Asia during the ongoing “Hot Cold War” in Asia. Our founding fathers agreed that this it was necessary for this region to have a grouping that could enhance our collective security. It was very interesting that they left the idea of “economic integration” as a future agenda for the next generation to decide. At first, the prospective association did not have any specific name. So, they used “Southeast Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SEAARC)” as the temporary name. Col. Thanat, Thailand’s Foreign Minister at that time, said that the name of the association was not the key point. “It is what the association does that really counts”, he added. Finally, it came out as the association that we now know as ASEAN.
However, I would like to emphasize that the process is as important as the result. The main idea of what is called the “Spirit of Bang Saen” is that we left sensitive issues behind and solve the easiest first. Col. Thanat, as the key person of this initiative, has combined his diplomatic wisdom and Thai hospitality to convince the others through various ways such as opening the space for free talk, playing golf, drinking, and walking along the beach from August 3 to August 7. At the end, our founding fathers came back to Bangkok and signed the declaration to establish ASEAN on August 8. It was the historical moment where five countries started working together and welcoming our friends to join until we reached ten member countries in 1997. That year was so critical because of the Asian Financial Crisis. Nonetheless, ASEAN member countries had strengthened the ability of our community by recognizing the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) that included China, Japan, and South Korea to our circle.
Amid the crisis, Thailand was fortunate to have Dr. Surin Pitsuwan. In 1997, Dr. Surin was the minister of foreign affairs who had worked so hard to foster ASEAN’s role. He was approved to be the secretary-general of ASEAN from 2008 to 2012. His prominent contribution as the secretary-general is to reinforce the ASEAN Charter. The ASEAN Charter is essential for further step of the community because it is a hallmark of “rule-based” community. It means that ASEAN countries had committed to keep some principles in mind. Plus, ASEAN countries have responsibility to advance their collaboration and integration toward “one community”. Dr. Surin also tries his best to make ASEAN more global by pointing out an increasing role of ASEAN at the global stage. Likewise, he emphasizes that ASEAN is a great opportunity for its people as ASEAN countries pledged to improve their relations in three pillars: political-security, economic, and socio-cultural.
Thailand has taken ASEAN as national agenda during 2012-2015. The government implemented the policy to raise the awareness of ASEAN, particularly at school through teaching students ASEAN countries’ greeting words, national flowers, national costumes, and ASEAN Anthem. ASEAN Studies Center, Chulalongkorn University where I worked before coming to study in South Korea has generated several activities to foster the people-to-people connectivity such as scholar exchange programs, youth exchange programs, and new research on ASEAN studies. It was the first time for me to learn about ASEAN. I have to confess that I was not interested in ASEAN at the first time. I saw my director delivering a lecture on ASEAN. Then, I realized that ASEAN has a great opportunity for me too. Why shouldn’t I try? I contacted a Thai officer at the ASEAN-Korea Centre and asked her for a meeting. It was that time since which I have decided to work on ASEAN and South Korea relations.
In 2013, I invited H.E. Mr. Chung Hae Moon, the former secretary-general of ASEAN-Korea Centre to deliver a speech on the prospects and challenges of ASEAN and South Korea relations. In 2015, I succeeded in bridging the Korea Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (KISEAS) with the Center. Both sides agreed to sign the memorandum of understanding to enhance the academic relations in several ways. I could say that all the people I have worked with are still engaged until now. These stories are not to show my ability off. They are merely samples from a person who has maximized the benefits of the existence of ASEAN by earning his life under the label of ASEAN. As Dr. Surin said in his speech at the opening ceremony of the Center, ASEAN is an idea that Thailand has contributed to the region and the world. However, that idea would not be successful without the willingness of our friends. So, ASEAN is not only what we dare to dream at the first place but also what we care to share peace, prosperity, and progress for all member countries.
By Seksan Anantasirikiat, ASEAN Correspondent from Thailand