"Surin: Because of the Crisis, We Are Prone to Conflict"

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Thailand's Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan caused a stir in June when, at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, he challenged the region's tradition of non-interference. Instead, he proposed a new policy of flexible engagement that would allow member states more leeway in commenting on each other's affairs. In an interview with TIME Bangkok bureau chief Tim Larimer last week, Surin defended his position and talked about the new tensions in Asia. Excerpts:TIME: Southeast Asia has become a volatile region. How is Thailand coping?
Surin: For once Thailand is an island of stability, by default. It is not Thailand as a country that is at stake, it's the approach, it's the philosophy of openness, of transparency, of discipline, of staying within the system rather than opting out of the system. So if Thailand fails, it will have a negative repercussion for those who are looking for a way out of this crisis.TIME: By promoting openness and transparency, are you sending a message to Prime Minister Mahathir in Malaysia?
Surin: It is obviously recognized that there are different approaches. Thailand is willing to adopt one. Others countries, for their own peculiar situations, have adopted other models. I'm not sending a message to anybody, but I'm sure it's being observed by many, the way in which we are handling our problems.TIME: Meanwhile China and Vietnam are congratulating each other that socialism has shielded them from the economic crisis.
Surin: In the end, it's what approach will prepare each society better to face the inevitable onslaught of globalization, the tsunami of civilization. Thailand decided to strengthen its internal mechanisms and systems to face that tsunami. Others have adopted the measure of closure, building up dikes against that tsunami. Inevitably, all of these countries and economies will have to engage with each other. The only way is to be transparent, to be open, to be disciplined. Thailand has been following this road of economic and political development, of market economics. At some times in our history we have been regarded as unstable, as noisy, as a bit chaotic. Experience has proven we have gone through that period intact, and right now, ready to take off again. Other countries are now talking about reformation--reformasi--adjustment, restructuring. We have gone through that period. Now our system can weather any pressure, whether it's economic, political or social. That is the advantage of having adopted this model earlier than others. Centralization, control, a top down model of development could work only for a certain period of time. Growth cannot provide legitimacy forever. In the end, it's free participation, equal participation, which will lead to fairer distribution of the fruits of growth. That will be the source of legitimacy.TIME: There has been a lot of squabbling going on in Southeast Asia. Is an era of regional solidarity over?
Surin: We are going through a tough period of adjustment, precisely because there is so much diversity in the region, from one absolute, centralized state, to one extremely open and pluralistic state. You cannot expect the membership to synchronize on everything they do.TIME: Is the new motto of ASEAN Every man for himself?
Surin: The way out of this crisis is more solidarity within the grouping. All of us are turning inward, trying to fend for ourselves, becoming a bit suspicious of outsiders. Closed societies would be reluctant to accommodate external resources. So differences in approach would lead to tensions between countries, which have been pushed beneath the carpet in the past and are now resurfacing. So precisely because of the crisis we are in, we are prone to conflict.TIME: Is this going to trigger a military build-up in the region?
Surin: No two democracies ever go to war, ever go into open conflict. I don't think open conflict is a prospect for the near future. We have a momentum of cooperation from the past 30 years. The danger is you cannot ride on that momentum for too long. My generation is hoping we can be inspired by a vision of the future, a more open, more peaceful, more integrated Southeast Asia.TIME: You started a debate this year by promoting flexible engagement within ASEAN countries. Isn't that meddling?
Surin: Some are practicing it far beyond my original suggestion or expectation.TIME: Did Philippine President Estrada go too far in criticizing Malaysia?
Surin: The danger is to regard such an expression of concern as coming from an adversary, rather than from a neighbor or well-wisher. Precisely because we have grown together for so long. What is that phrase Rex Harrison used? I've grown accustomed to your face. Because we have achieved so many landmark agreements together, when there is this diversity in dealing with problems, you feel that something is amiss, something is wrong. We used to be able to talk to each other, we used to be able to settle our differences.PAGE 1  |  
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TIME: Non-interference has long been a doctrine of ASEAN. Why do you want to change that?
Surin: My point was to allow each country, each society, the flexibility of expressing its own internal dynamics and national character. For 30, 31 years in this marriage, all of us have gone through the process of transformation. None of us has been static. From war to peace, from absolute communism to a more relaxed and open system. For all of us to face problems in the same way and manner, with the same attitude, would be unrealistic. That doesn't mean we have to be antagonistic.TIME: Will you try to see Anwar Ibrahim when you visit Malaysia for the APEC meeting?
Surin: I don't know if that is possible. We have taken our own approach. It maybe different from others. We have to be able to communicate in such a way that it is perceived as well-wishing. You have to be careful not to overstep that.TIME: You have described Anwar as a friend.
Surin: Yes, he's a friend. He's of a generation that shares common values. The survival of ASEAN as a region depends on what I call an ASEAN personality, an ASEAN character, that would transcend boundaries, speak the same language, be inspired by the same values. Anwar has been able to create that phenomenon, reaching out in different societies, creating a network of these ASEAN personalities. In the past, we depended on national leadership. In the future, national leadership will have to have a trans-national appeal. In the end, if ASEAN is to survive at all, it will depend on that kind of vision. Anwar was able to make that connection, make the leap.TIME: If ASEAN's future depends on Anwar's vision, and Anwar is sitting in jail, what does that say about ASEAN?
Surin: It's a generation that is inspired by this vision. The implementation may face obstacles here or there, but this new vision has its own elan. It transcends Anwar.TIME: If Dr. Mahathir were sitting here now, what advice would you give him?
Surin: I'm not being presumptuous. He's a man of tremendous courage and ability, and vision, and he's generous enough to recognize the diversity in ASEAN, as a result of his own achievement. He has served as a role model: strong, firm, committed leadership. Prosperity is a consequence. In that prosperity, there must be diversity, plurality. Prosperity allows for various experimentation, permutations of approaches, of opinions. A man of his vision must recognize that.TIME: OK, you have flattered Dr. Mahathir. Now what should he do?
Surin: I am sure he has his own timing for doing things, which we respect.TIME: How can ASEAN admit Cambodia if it has yet to form a government?
Surin: ASEAN is not as influential as in the past. Therefore, ASEAN will have to be very careful not to add more to the internal problems that it already has, not to lose even more bargaining power. Political structure had never been a criteria for ASEAN. From now on, we'll have to look for more commonality. It might not be one similar political structure, but at least one similar commitment to interact, to cooperate, to resolve problems on a friendly basis.TIME: And if Cambodia does not have a government formed before the next ASEAN summit in December?
Surin: Well, then, that issue won't come up. Nothing has changed. There was an election, but that has not produced any reconciliation.  |  2
Economic woes and Malaysia's controversial detention of Anwar Ibrahim are fraying nerves--and tempers--inside the once oh-so-polite confines of ASEAN
Opposition to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad continues to grow, threatening his party's electoral prospectsWere Philippine President Estrada and Indonesian President Habibie