While former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s keynote address – “What enables clean governance in democracies?” – profiled salient examples from his own administration, the underlying theme was about getting Asean members on the same track towards good governance and for a brighter economic future. The future he talked about isn’t far off either and in only three more years, the Asean Economic Community (AEC) is to become a reality. With the EU and its single currency being stretched to breaking point, we have to ask: how can the AEC avoid the pitfalls of regionalism and what role will clean governance play within Asean?
On the Asean Economic Community (AEC)
“It is an ambitious integration programme which will result in (Asean) having a single production base and a single market for all 10 South-East Asian economies. People realise that the Asia Pacific region and the South-East Asian region are one of the fastest growing regions in the world.
Economically we are expected here in this region to provide a dynamic and powerful force that will generate global economic growth. But as we see from other (attempts at) regional integration… integration is not easy.
So despite the high growth that we are experiencing, the expectations that we will be successful, none of this can be taken for granted. Rather, we need to make sure that we have an environment, a culture that will support us throughout this integration programme so that we can fully realise this great potential for peace and prosperity in the region.”
Asean’s perceived lack of ambition
“When I was chairman of Asean, European journalists used to ask me why we were lacking in ambition and not aiming for a common currency; I think now they have the answer.
Asean’s approach has always been a gradual and pragmatic one… for the first 30-40 years, it wasn’t about economics but about achieving peace, making sure we could coexist. Now we’re shifting the focus to economic integration but we recognise the limitations, one of which is the existence of the development gap (between member nations).
What happened in Europe was that the integration was very fast, and then new members were brought in, then they found it was quite difficult to reconcile the gap that existed between the new members and the existing members. We’re coming from different angles and there will be different challenges and different stages in the integration programme.
The most difficult challenge (to my mind) is that even this is not enough. At the moment we’re just letting leaders, governments at their twice-a-year summit decide upon future programmes. If we truly want to create an (Asean) community, if we truly want to create common values, we have to make our people feel that they belong, that they are Asean citizens. We are still a long, long way from that, not just even a sense of belonging but a sense of awareness of the existence of Asean as a regional grouping.”
Asean and human rights
“Thailand began the idea of having leaders at the summit meet civil society organisations from the 10 countries. We ran into trouble with some of our friends in the region because their governments were not prepared to have that kind of forum. But… in subsequent years we (continue) to make sure that this gets on the agenda. We need to make sure that the social and political changes that are necessary for cooperation and integration must also take place in parallel.
We’ve talked about setting up a human rights commission at the Asean level at first in terms of promotion, but soon it will have to be about protection. Asean’s progress in recent years is very much linked to what happens in countries like Myanmar.”
Corruption within Asean
“It’s going to be a long difficult fight (against corruption) and I’m so pleased that here at this Conference we have so many Asean representatives. What we need to recognise is that it’s not enough to put our houses, our countries in order. In the end, our community will only be as strong as our weakest link. Therefore we need to be aware that this will become a regional challenge as people, money, labour, capital investment and trade flow more freely across our borders.”
Extracts from the keynote address and Q&A session by Abhisit Vejjajiva MP, leader of the Thai opposition, at the inaugural Conference of the Asean Coalition for Clean Governance.