The Casual Beginnings of ASEAN
Regional alliances are often brought about by the need to address strife. While ASEAN is no different, the evolution of the organization couldn’t be further from tense boardrooms and dry meeting halls
Text Rachel Genevieve Chia
Photos various contributors
ASIAN Geographic extends our warmest thanks to the ASEAN Secretariat and Ms Salmaini Malik and family for providing resources and support in the writing of this feature.
It started at a banquet in 1960s Jakarta, the same city that today hosts the 2018 Asian Games. Neutral Thailand had just brokered a reconciliation between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines – the beginning of an effort to stabilise the region observers would later say deserved the Nobel Peace Prize – and champagne flowed as the foreign ministers, and their respective nations, celebrated.
The disagreements that arose between the three states over the territorially contentious formation of the Federation of Malaysia (comprising Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore) marred 1960s Southeast Asia with bitter intergovernmental relations. The Philippines broke off diplomatic ties with Malaysia, while a provoked Indonesia launched konfrontasi: half a decade of armed incursions, bomb attacks and cross-border altercations that killed over 700 soldiers.
An early attempt at forming an intergovernmental organisation – the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), comprising Malaya, Thailand and the Philippines – met its end precisely because of politics surrounding the new Malaysian federation. And ASA was never endorsed by Indonesia, elaborates Shaun Narine in his 2002 book Explaining ASEAN: Regionalism in Southeast Asia. But at that 1966 banquet, spirits were high, and when Thai foreign minister Thanat Khoman approached his Indonesian counterpart, Adam Malik, to propose another shot at regional cooperation, he “agreed without hesitation,” Khoman recalls in the commemorative publication ASEAN at 30 by Jamil Maidan Flores and Jun Abad. (It was also Malik who later suggested the name “ASEAN”.)
“Within a few months, everything was ready,” Khoman continues on. “I therefore invited the two former members of the ASA, Malaysia and the Philippines, and Indonesia, a key member, to a meeting in Bangkok. In addition, Singapore sent S. Rajaratnam, then Foreign Minister, to see me about joining the new set-up.”
Their second time at the negotiation table fared better, and the terms of the charter for this new Southeast Asian institution were hashed out over four days of meetings at a secluded seaside resort in Bang Saen, a coastal town a little out of the Thai capital. But researchers agree that the bulk of negotiations really took place during the two days of networking and golf Khoman had scheduled for his guests preceding the conference.
In this casual environment, ministers lobbied privately for national causes, and a general consensus was reached even before formal discussions began…
For the rest of this article and other stories from this issue, see Asian Geographic Issue 131, 2018