The Bangkok Declaration

SouthEast Asia burned during the ’60s. The global conflict between the super-powers found a convenient arena located far from each in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Malaysia’s neighbours sat on the edge of war following that country’s independence from the UK in 1963. The reasons were many. Singapore resented it’s ejection from the new federation in 1965. The Philippines claimed parts of northwestern Borneo that were entered into the Malaysia federation as the province of Sabah. And Indonesia’s Sukarno regime went to arms over what it perceived as a plot by the English-speaking world to divide the Malay peoples and instigated a political and armed campaign known as konfontasi.

It may seem silly to those of us with western-centric eyes, but Indonesia had good reason to fear encirclement by the English-speaking world. To the south, the UK had succeeded over the last century in the near-complete colonization of the continent of Australia and New Zealand. To the east, Indonesia shared a land border with Australia in New Guinea (which controlled the eastern half of the island until 1975). To the north, the US held strong defence ties and prosecuted a massive war effort in Vietnam out of bases in Thailand and the Philippines (which was itself controlled by the US from 1898 to 1946). And though the independence of Malaysia and Singapore from the UK might ostensibly be considered a weakening of Anglo influence, Indonesia perceived the Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement as a way of preventing the unification of the Malay-world into a Greater Indonesia (or Indonesia Raya). Konfontasi lasted until the Sukarno regime was weened from power in 1966 and Suharto’s New Order, fearing communist insurgencies across the region, saw an opportunity for better relations with the west and in particular the English-speaking world.

Malaysia’s only conflict-free border was shared with Thailand (though that would soon change). In an effort to diffuse tensions, Thailand took the initiative and invited Malaysia and her other neighbours: the Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia to a conference of Foreign Ministers in the beautiful coastal resort of Bang Saen. There in the humid days of early August 1967, five men gathered on the Thai coast in search of a path toward regional reconciliation. The negotiations were not always easy, but the five men played golf, drank, ate sandwiches, took walks, and enjoyed the easy sea breeze from the balconies. Finding all of this much more agreeable than war, the five decided to create an informal club to promote further dialogue. The initial name of SEAARC or the SouthEast Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was refused by the Indonesian diplomat on the grounds that it sounded too much like Shark. The Thai delegate suggested another name that they all immediately agreed upon: the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Pronounced ah-zee-an. The details of the new arrangement were announced in the Bangkok Declaration, signed on August 8th, 1967 in Bangkok’s ancient Saranrom Palace. At the ceremony, the Singaporean Foreign Minister evoked Benjamin Franklin: “if we do not hang together, we of the Asean nations will hang separately.”

Signing of the Bangkok Declaration.

So it all began.

The Bali Summit

For the first nine years of her life, ASEAN was just a way for the member countries’ Foreign Ministers to get together and share a drink. That changed in February of 1976, when for the first time in the history of SouthEast Asia, the organization’s national leaders met in Bali, establishing by de facto a new institution: the ASEAN Summit. This unprecedented meeting signified a greater level of inter-governmental cooperation and signalled to the world a certain willingness to play a larger role in the region following America’s withdrawal from Vietnam. This new spirit took a physical shape in the establishment of a Secretariat in Jakarta, which opened five years later in 1981. As is the ASEAN Way, the leaders agreed that the Secretariat should be headed by a Secretary-General, chosen on a rotational basis from each member-state for a three-year term.

ASEAN Headquarters.

It may not stir the blood, but it’s a start.

The leaders also issued ASEAN’s first two official agreements: a Declaration of ASEAN Concord, and a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (commonly called the TAC). The ASEAN Concord declared eight broad goals and outlined a light and loose program to reach them by economic and political cooperation. The leaders made no attempt to turn the organization into a military alliance, fearing it would inflame their neighbours and greater powers without enhancing their own security. Alongside this program the TAC established a regional zone of peace by committing member-states to resolve neighbourhood disputes by pacific means alone.


In 1984, the tiny oil-rich state of Brunei became the first new state to join the organization. It made sense because the territory of the state was so enmeshed within Malaysia. The next four members would prove much harder to swallow. Collectively referred to in diplomatic circles as the CLMV: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam each presented a unique challenge to ASEAN. Substantially poorer and less developed than the founding members as well as Brunei, it took the better part of the 1990s to get everybody together. Vietnam joined in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and after much drama and violence, Cambodia in 1999.

The inclusion of Vietnam in particular was something of a cathartic moment for a club that began life as a firewall against communist expansion at the height of the Vietnam War. It should be remembered that two of ASEAN’s founding members—Thailand and Philippines—contributed troops to the US-led effort in the south of that country. Even after the US withdrawal and subsequent unification of Vietnam in 1976, tensions remained over Soviet influence in the country. Likewise, the communist world came to see ASEAN as a front for America’s interests in the region.

The Cambodian Saga

ASEAN’s fear of Vietnamese domination over Indochina was realized when that country invaded Cambodia in December of 1978 in response to the Khmer Rouge’s frequent border provocations. The battle-hardened Vietnamese swiftly ousted Cambodia’s pro-Chinese regime, replacing it one month later with a pro-Vietnamese government. Provoked by the removal of a friendly government and fearing the growth of Soviet influence by way of Vietnamese expansion, China promptly invaded northern Vietnam. They hoped to engage the Vietnamese head-on and overwhelm them with their superior numbers. However, the seasoned Vietnamese held back their regular divisions and relied instead on their regional militias and guerrilla tactics. Once the Chinese realized that the Vietnamese were not going to abandon Cambodia to reinforce their position, they adopted a scorched earth policy and burned their way back to China. After 28 days of fighting the Chinese had demonstrated their willingness to halt further Vietnamese (and thus Soviet) expansion and Vietnam—the Afghanistan of SouthEast Asia—held onto Cambodia, and added China to its list of foreign powers successfully repelled. A list that already included France and the United States.

Henceforth, the inclusion of Vietnam into ASEAN became entwined with a political settlement between the four warring political factions of Cambodia. Vietnam occupied Cambodia for the next decade, only pulling out its last soldiers in September of 1989. The impending dissolution of the Soviet Union finally bore the UN Paris Peace Agreements in October of 1991. For the first time in the history of nations, the agreements granted the world organization unprecedented power to administer the affairs of a sovereign nation. The UN administered elections in May of 1993, and a coalition government was formed out of the participating parties, and the leaders of the two largest became co-Prime Ministers: Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

With the near-complete political and economic isolation of Vietnam following the collapse of the communist-world and its global market COMECON, the country sought better relations with its SouthEast Asian neighbours and the victorious market-economies. President Bill Clinton working with Senator John McCain normalized relations with Vietnam on July 11th, 1995. Seventeen days later, Vietnam became the seventh member of ASEAN. The organization that had began life as a bulwark against communism now found itself with a greater sense of it’s own purpose: the unification of Southeast Asia into a single regional grouping.

The three nations remaining outside the group—Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia—were slated to simultaneously accede on the 30th anniversary of the Bangkok Declaration, in 1997. But two weeks before the induction ceremony, tensions between the ruling factions of Cambodia’s coalition government broke out into violence in Phnom Penh. In the aftermath, Prince Norodom Ranariddh fled into exile and Hun Sen appointed military-man Ung Hot, the Governor of Siem Reap, as his co-Prime Minister. In response, ASEAN delayed indefinitely Cambodia’s admission into the group while Laos and Myanmar joined as the eighth and ninth members on July 23rd, 1997.

Concerns that the admission of Myanmar tilted the balance in favour of authoritarianism over more liberal forms of government were counted by fears that leaving the country outside the club would allow China to further increase its influence in the country. And in the longer term, the possible liberalization of Myanmar’s frozen economy would grant ASEAN members access to the country’s bounty of natural resources, especially its much-sought teak tropical hardwood. However, such hopes were not immediately realized and Myanmar’s appalling human-rights record together with the detention of political prisoners and Aung San Suu Kyi in particular, would remain a flashpoint in relations between ASEAN and western nations for years to come.

Check point in Yangon.

A blurry checkpoint in front of Aung San Suu Ky’s house during her most recent house arrest.

In response to the clashes in Cambodia, ASEAN sent a delegation to meet with each party, a “troika” formed by the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. At first, Hun Sen balked at the troika’s participation, but relented and ultimately welcomed ASEAN’s role.1 The troika heard each parties account of the clashes which formed a Rashomon-like narrative. Following fresh elections on July 26th of 1998 for which ASEAN sent 75 observers, Hun Sen was returned to power. The following spring Cambodia became ASEAN’s tenth member on the twentieth day of April, 1999 in a ceremony at Hanoi’s Daewoo Hotel, at long last fulfilling the dream of the founding father’s of an ASEAN bestriding all of Southeast Asia.

Map of ASEAN.

All together now.

The ASEAN Charter

With the region at long last bound together in one organization, ASEAN’s desire to consolidate its gains and move toward a more rules-based organization flowered at the 11th Summit in December of 2005, in Kuala Lumpur. ASEAN Heads of State assigned an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) consisting of distinguished citizens from each state to lay out the parameters and recommend policy options for the drafting of an ASEAN Charter. Among them was Fidel V. Ramos, representing the Philippines, a former president and the son of Narcisco Ramos, one of the founding fathers of ASEAN. The group solicited input from think-tanks, academia and even sent a special team to Brussels to confer with EU officials. And at the 12th Summit in Cebu in early 2007, the Group presented their report to ASEAN leaders.2 Tellingly, among their five principle recommendations, they expressed the “resolve to realise an ASEAN Community and ultimately an ASEAN Union.”3

ASEAN leaders then handed off responsibility for drafting the Charter to a High-Level Task Force, consisting of ten representatives from each of the ASEAN Governments. Unlike the EPG, where the members were elder ASEAN statesman serving in an individual capacity and encouraged to think “outside-the-box,” the members of the Task Force represented their governments and served under the supervision of their respective Foreign Ministers. Most of the members were already familiar with each other from years on the ASEAN diplomatic circle, and during this exercise they became ever closer companions. The Myanmar representative even adopted one of the Singaporean representatives young assistants as his second daughter.4 The thirteen Task Force meetings held from February to October took them through the full Southeast Asia backpacking circuit and then some. Just as the founding fathers relied on golf to ease tensions during the drafting of the Bangkok Declaration, the Task Force took spa days in order to relax and get in the right frame of mind for cooperation. 5

This easy-going approach helped reconcile differences over the most contentious issue: the establishment of an ASEAN Human Rights Commission. From the outset, the ten members were divided into three camps. The four newest and least developed members—the CLMV—outright opposed the creation of a Human Rights Commission fearing “finger-pointing.” Indonesia and Thailand were in favour, and Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore occupied the middle ground.6 The discussions over the human rights mechanism came to a head on the tenth meeting, held in the cool and charming city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

Living Together in Chang Mai.

This sign in Chang Mai sort of captures the whole idea of the thing.

Things did not initially go well and in the morning the Singaporean Chair found that the members had physically split themselves into old- and new-member camps. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam occupied a room on the ground floor while the older members, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand spoke in a separate room on an upper floor. The Chair commuted between the two groups all morning trying one compromise text after another. Until finally about noon both sides agreed to a compromise solution that essentially passed the decision onto their political superiors.7 They agreed that ASEAN will establish a “human rights body,” that “shall operate in accordance with the terms of reference to be determined by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting.” Though far short of any kind of binding human rights declaration and regional court with the power to prosecute violations, the agreement did take the very first step in removing human rights from the “taboo” subject list and bringing it into the light. And all steps, however meek, toward a world of full and unfettered human rights should be cherished.

The Charter made greater progress in other areas of cooperation. It conferred ASEAN a “legal personality,” allowing it to enter into contracts and treaties. It enhanced the role of the Secretary-General, raising the position to the level of Minister, and created a committee of Permanent Representatives in the Jakarta Secretariat. It confirmed an official ASEAN flag, motto (One Vision, One Identity, One Community), and the adoption of an anthem. And at a lean 53 pages, the ASEAN Charter compares favourably to the rejected European Constitution (482 pages), and it’s replacement the Lisbon Treaty (250 pages).8 On the twentieth day of November 2007, ASEAN heads of state along with members of the Eminent Persons’ Group and High Level Task Force gathered in the Banyan Ballroom of the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore.

There, on the fortieth anniversary of the founding of ASEAN, the leaders of Southeast Asia’s ten nations ascribed their names to the ASEAN Charter, which for all its imperfections was a family exercise from start to finish, and abolished the hierarchy between old and new members, granting forevermore equal ownership in their emerging federation of SouthEast Asia.


ASEAN lacks any kind of judicial, legislative, or executive functions. A committee of Permanent Representatives, beholden to their respective foreign ministers is based in the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. Decisions are taken by consensus at the summit. The prestige and frequency of summits have increased since the first was held in Bali in 1976. Though a second summit was held the following year in Malaysia, the third would have to wait another decade, until 1987 in Manila. The next four summits were held about every three years: Singapore in 1992; Thailand in 1995; Vietnam in 1998; and Brunei in 2001. The summit become something of an institution in this period and from 2001 onwards it was held more or less every year. Since 2009, summits have been held twice a year, in the spring and fall.


There are three countries that might one day join ASEAN: East Timor, Papua New Guinea, and Palau. East Timor and Palau have so few people that they would struggle to participate fully in the organization as it is currently constituted. Both struggle just to fund and staff an embassy in the ten member-states. This is tied into the central obstacle of further integration.

Each ASEAN member-state contributes the same amount of funds to the organization. In effect this limits the organization to the abilities of it’s weakest economy. Even though Indonesia’s GDP is 100 times the size of Laos, both nations make the same membership contributions. The larger economies (Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore) insist that any weighting of contributions would have to be reflected in voting power. For example, if Indonesia contributes ten times as much as Laos to the organization then it should have ten times the voting power at the summits. Until ASEAN creates a formula that grants more populous states more say and ability to fund the organization, it will remain a prestigious but penniless club.

Perhaps the greatest driver of future integration will be China’s challenge in the South China Sea. Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei have territorial disputes with China regarding offshore oil reserves, maritime borders, and islands (the Scarborough Shoal, Spratly, and Paracel Islands being the most common flash-points). China’s overwhelming military and economic superiority vis-a-vis any one member-state may provide the impetus for ASEAN’s 630 billion people to draw closer together in economic and military matters. China has traditionally used Cambodia and Myanmar to spoil ASEAN unity. However, Myanmar has since loosened China’s grip on the country as it opens up to the world and seeks new partners.

Personally, I believe that ASEAN’s richer states must voluntarily increase their membership contributions until the least developed states can get on their feet. In addition, ASEAN should issue a single tourist visa that covers the whole region, of which the proceeds would go directly to the organization. This is a way of giving the association an independent revenue stream from the states. Also, Jakarta is a crowded city and the Secretariat based there is distant from most capitals and uninspiring. A new permanent Secretariat and Conference Centre should be constructed to host the evermore important ASEAN Summits. The Natuna Islands, floating about between the maritime nations of SouthEast Asia provide the perfect location for a central ASEAN headquarters. The islands could even be transferred from Indonesian to ASEAN sovereignty like the District of Columbia or the Australian Capital Territory. The administrative buildings could provide the anchor for a grand future capital along the lines of Malaysia’s new capital: Putrajaya. This would have the effect of placing a great stake in the middle of the SouthChina Sea on behalf of ASEAN, sending a clear message to China regarding what should rightfully be called: the Asean Sea. Along with East Timor and Palau as member-states, it would all look a little something like this:


One future for ASEAN.


Show 8 footnotes

  1. Severino, Rodolfo C. 2006. Southeast Asia in Search of an ASEAN Community. Insights from the former ASEAN Secretary-General. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing. p. 56-67.
  2. Koh, Manalo and Woon (eds.). The Making of the ASEAN Charter. 2009. World Scientific Publishing. p. 40-42.
  3. EPG Report on the ASEAN Charter. Executive Summary. p. 2.
  4. Koh, Manalo and Woon (eds.) 2009. The Making of the ASEAN Charter. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing. p. 31.
  5. Koh, Manalo and Woon (eds.) 2009. The Making of the ASEAN Charter. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing. p. 34.
  6. Koh, Manalo and Woon (eds.) 2009. The Making of the ASEAN Charter. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing. p. 58.
  7. Koh, Manalo and Woon (eds.) 2009. The Making of the ASEAN Charter. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing. p. 63.
  8. Koh, Manalo and Woon (eds.) 2009. The Making of the ASEAN Charter. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing. p. 132.
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