By Surin Pitsuwan*

Bangkok Post 

Sep 6, 2017

As a 10-member inter-governmental body, ASEAN prides itself on having survived many regional crises and emergency situations, becoming “a community of sharing and caring societies”.

However, the Rakhine communal crisis is a new challenge in which ASEAN’s credibility is being put to test.

ASEAN has taken a role in containing a number of regional conflicts. In the early and late 1990s the regional group helped tackle conflicts in Cambodia and engaged in international efforts to restore law and order in East Timor. In early and late 2000s, ASEAN helped contain escalating conflicts in Aceh, Indonesia, and border tensions between Cambodia and Thailand.

Even though those collective efforts were conducted with quiet diplomacy and collective political will, they helped contain the conflicts.

When Myanmar was hit by cyclone Nargis in 2008, ASEAN proved it could take a regional leadership role in arranging a humanitarian response to the devastation caused by the disaster.

From 2008 to 2010, during which I spearheaded ASEAN’s humanitarian efforts, the regional grouping, with the support of the United Nations, the World Bank and the international community, was able to organize international humanitarian assistance to victims of the cyclone at a time when Myanmar was still under sanctions by many countries.

The current prevailing and deteriorating situation in Rakhine, which the UN secretary-general describes as a possible “human catastrophe”, is another test for ASEAN’s “solidarity, efficacy and credibility.”

ASEAN can act to address the Rakhine crisis. In that event, here is my suggestion: Adopt the modality of its engagement in the East Timorese 1999 crisis.

During that time, Thailand was the ASEAN chair. Some ASEAN member countries were not willing to engage in an international effort to bring about peace and security to East Timor during which anti-independence militants’ attacks on civilians turned into violence throughout the country.

But Thailand’s prime minister at the time, Chuan Leekpai, as ASEAN chair, suggested these words which helped break the deadlock: “Those ASEAN member states which are prepared and willing can join the International Force for East Timor.”

He was referring to a multinational task force organized by Australia to address the humanitarian and security crisis in the country from 1999-2000 prior to the arrival of the United Nations peacekeeping force.

After Chuan’s remark, ASEAN engagement in East Timor became “a coalition of the willing”, helping the regional grouping avoid having to gain the consensus required for its decision-making principles.

ASEAN must now act again to address the Rakhine crisis. It will have to act fast to save lives and prevent the carnage from deteriorating and escalating into regional tensions.

The world is watching. ASEAN’s credibility and profile are hanging in the balance.

*Former secretary-general of ASEAN and former foreign minister of Thailand

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