Mon, 08 Aug 1994

`ASEAN way' helps solves disputes

By Pandaya

JAKARTA (JP): The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which turns 27 years old today, is by no means is free of disputes among its six members. However, it has a way of resolving these problems, which its Secretary General Dato' Ajit Singh describes as the "ASEAN way".

Dato Ajit, in an interview with The Jakarta Post, denied suggestions that internal bickering, which has never surfaced in ASEAN meetings, has been swept under the carpet.

Member countries resolve their conflicts with their neighbors on bilateral basis "behind closed doors", he said. "If a conflict is swept under the carpet, it will only make matters worse.

ASEAN was established on Aug. 8, 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand with the objective of fostering regional economic cooperation. Brunei joined the group in 1984 immediately after it became an independent state.

The organization has flourished by expanding its areas of cooperation and also increasingly playing an important role in regional and world affairs. ASEAN now counts the United States, Japan among its "dialog partners" and Russia and China among its "consultative partners".

Last year, the organization launched an ambitious plan to turn the region into a free trade area within 15 years.

Cynics say that an important part of the ASEAN success story is its ability to hide the numerous disputes among its six member states.

Almost all of the member countries have overlapping territorial claims: Malaysia and Indonesia are now disputing sovereignty over the Ligitan and Sipadan islands; Singapore and Malaysia are fighting over Batu Puteh island; Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia are also disputing the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea that are also being claimed by Vietnam, China and Taiwan.

Malaysia and the Philippines are still finding peaceful solutions to their dispute over Sabah. "The two will work out the matter within the framework of ASEAN without disrupting intra- ASEAN relations," he said.

Member countries like to adopt the "ASEAN way" to resolve differences, Dato' Ajit said citing as an example the proposal to establish a joint authority to exploit resources in the South China Sea conflict. One fundamental principle is that no bilateral problems can be raised in the ASEAN forum, he added.

With the end of the Cambodian war, the way is now open for other countries in Southeast Asia to join ASEAN. Vietnam is expected to be formally admitted next year. Laos is already attending ASEAN meetings as an observer and Cambodia as a guest of ASEAN. Myanmar attended for the first time in Bangkok last month. ASEAN leaders are envisaging that the group one day will include all the 10 Southeast Asian countries.

Dato' Ajit, a senior Malaysian diplomat assigned to head the Secretariat in Jakarta since 1993, said ASEAN's most important achievement during its 27 year history was the peace and stability that each member country enjoyed.

"If we look at other countries, we can have great satisfaction about the region (as far as stability is concerned)," he said.

The peace and stability have enabled ASEAN governments to focus on economic and social development, making Southeast Asia one of the world's most dynamic regions.

A lot of progress can be attributed to ASEAN, he said. "People can move about freely, and governments can concentrate on raising people's standard of living, building housing and providing a better education," he said.

Behind the dazzling achievements, however, are a range of serious problems which remain to be solved.

About 90 million people in ASEAN are still in poverty, and the region is facing the pressing problem of environmental degradation and migration to urban centers, he said, listing some of ASEAN's challenges.

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