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What is the “ASEAN way”, and is it an effective way of resolving conflict in the Asia-Pacific?

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The “ASEAN Way – Conflicts and Resolutions


In recent times, ‘The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has attracted a lot of speculation and criticism, for crossing boundaries and violating the salient principles they stand by and thereby creating a furor in many regions, who refer to such behavior as the ‘ASEAN Way.” Scholars and critics have constantly been questioning and debating about the authenticity of the “ASEAN Way” due to the conflict stirred up in various places that had faced its negative impact. In this study, an attempt would be made to investigate and analyze the role of ‘ASEAN’ in conflict and resolution focusing on two different regions and identifying the major factors that played a major role in it.

Background of the Study

According to (Gillian Goh, p. 113) some scholars and critics have pointed out that “ASEAN” has apparently violated the sacred principle of non- intervention…” There are certain unique principles of merit regarding conflict management of the ‘ASEAN Way’ that can be applied usefully at a global level that could have a positive impact on an organization. However, a few of its principles are not suitably applicable in many situations, leading to a negative impact. In 1961 ASEAN, a regional organization was established after the unification of Vietnam, to serve as a potent platform to share cultural values and experience a collective identity of their own. Those who belonged to the organization “saw themselves as not only Southeast Asian, but also as a part of an Asian cultural, political and economic context.” (Shaun Narine, 1997, p. 359)

The Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) and Maphilindo were some of the ancient models which did not prove successful. In fact, the Maphilinido is an example of how common culture was utilized for binding the region of Southeast Asia into a cohesive entity by “advancing political and strategic objectives.” (Amitav Acharya, p. 82) Some of the principles of Maphilindo were later adopted by the “ASEAN Way” where the three member states pledged never to make use of ‘collective defense to serve the interests of any among the big powers” but instead use the principle of consultation to settle differences between its members.

In resolving their conflicts, the ASEAN members set for themselves a list of procedural norms which served as guidelines to guide them about the conflicts that were to be managed by the Association. According to (Soesastro, Hadi, ed., 1995) the following were some of the core principles followed by ASEANS for managing conflicts – seeking agreement and harmony, non- confrontation and agreeability, politeness, sensitivity, private and elitist diplomacy and the principles of quiet and being non – Cartesian and non- legalistic. Though these norms are not specific about their policy goals, they denote the manner of dealing among the member states and offers solutions of managing their conflicts and affairs when interacting with each other within an ASEAN context.

Article 2 of the Association’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation comprises of yet another set of principles that have been adopted by the ASEAN members and these four principles serve as a guide for all their actions and interactions. They include ‘respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations, non- interference, settling conflicts in a peaceful manner and renouncing the use of threat or force.

According to (Rizal Sukma, p. 109) ASEAN has played a major and significant role in streamlining regional security in Southeast Asia despite the conflicts and weaknesses that are prevalent. Though tension and conflict seem to be ever present, yet Southeast Asia has experienced periods of stability and peace. ASEAN has played a salient role by ensuring that war can never be a tool for resolving conflicts not only among its own members but beyond other boundaries. This point is clearly evident when the ASEAN embraced their prior enemies such as Laos and Vietnam and incorporated them into the group and also managed to complete the ASEAN 10 by admitting Myanmar and Cambodia as members of the group. ASEAN also extended its security after the Cold War by securing an active part in resolving conflicts and shaping regional security in the Asia Pacific region.

However, in a rapidly changing East Asia, ASEAN does face major challenges and it is imperative that it has to consolidate its position. According to (William Tow & Brendan Taylor, 2008, p.2) there are two primary pillars involving the architecture of regional security. One of them is the ASEAN- driven multilateral institutions and the other is the ‘bilateral alliance system led by the United States.’ In response to the ongoing conflict in many regions the ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism has undertaken to resolve the conflict and create a feasible human rights system in its place.

One such ongoing issue comes from West Papua and the insurgency of Aceh which occurred during the era of the autocratic Suharto regime. The primary conflict was a human rights issue where West Papua which was part of Indonesia was seeking to be an independent territory. This territory comprised of minorities with a distinct religious and ethnic background and over the years has suffered a lot of abuse of human rights during the Indonesian rule. (Jennifer Robinson, 2010, p. 169) During that period, West Papuan indigenous population did not have a human rights mechanism in place and therefore suffered untold injustice especially during the Suharto regime.

West Papua is situated in the Pacific Ocean about 300 kms. from Australia and belongs to the western half of the New Guinea Island. It was colonized by the Dutch and became a part of the Dutch East Indies, presently known as modern day Indonesia. After WWII, Indonesia became an independent country, but the Dutch argued that West Papua should be separated from Indonesia and have its own independence. The history, religion, culture, and ethnicity of the West Papuans are quite distinct from that of the Indonesians and the Dutch began preparing them to gain their own independence. However, a U.N Charter was passed in 1961 that gave West Papuans freedom from the Dutch. President Sukarno made claims that West Papua belonged to Indonesia and threatened to wage war and forcefully annex West Papua. Violence, killings and coercion were ever present and voting was by force. West Papuans experienced all forms of abuse of human rights such as executions, land confiscation, torture and unjust cultural discrimination which became a breeding ground for hate and resentment. West Papuans also felt that the AOFC that was put in place to bring about peace and justice to them had violated their right to self – determination.

ASEAN, a human rights mechanism became the answer to all these problems to bring about peace and justice to indigenous minorities who lived in oppression. However, it did not undermine or ignore the power of external powers, but used the strategy of nurturing and maintaining regional security. According to (Tommy Koh, 2004, p. 38) the U.S provided a security net for Southeast Asia and this had “been a stabilizing factor for the development of the region.” However, ASEAN does try its best to maintain a cordial relationship and cooperation among its member states to help solve the domestic problems that crop up, but yet security issues are a major challenge to them in the form of terrorism, crime, poverty, piracy, communal violence and the illegal trafficking of women and children.

Thailand was yet another country that faced major conflicts with its rival Cambodia, in relation to its perimeter as well as a dispute that involved an ancient temple made of stone. From the year 2008 constant tension prevailed along border of the modern – day states of Thailand and Cambodia and following this, war and violence broke out between them. Heavy losses were incurred on both sides in terms of life and property and ASEAN was faced with yet another major conflict between its members. Though Cambodia appealed to the U.N Security Council to lend support, the U.N Council told the ASEAN court to settle the conflict between its warring members. The non- intervention policy of ASEAN made it difficult for it to settle such a dispute and therefore this proved to be a major challenge that faced them. One of the primary objectives of ASEAN was to “promote peace and stability in the region” and did not have such a mechanism in place to deal with conflicts in the beginning. However, it was with the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in 1976 that such a mechanism was initiated, whereby its members were supposed to respect the sovereignty of its member countries and solve their conflicts peacefully through non- intervention or threat.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, refused to endorse that the Preah Vihear temple site that was built in the 11th century (Marily van Nevel, 2011) should be made a World Heritage site, even though Cambodia had got the sanction from the UNESCO. (Sujane Kanparit, 2013) The main reason for his refusal was because the area of 4.6 sq. Kms. that surrounded the temple area was already in dispute because it served to be a bone of contention between both countries and such an agreement would create further conflict. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) was put in place by ASEAN in order that conflicts be settled peacefully, but instead, both these countries violated most of its clauses leading to worse conflict between them. (Sujane Kanparit, 2013) Both Thailand and Cambodia had two totally different perspectives. While Thailand vouched for a bilateral approach, Cambodia wanted a multilateral approach.

ASEAN acted as a mediator between both countries but since their policy was to settle conflicts peacefully, the process was too long drawn and clashes between the two continued. The worst hit was the local people who thrived on local tourism which was their primary source of income for the community. The rocket firing damaged their community and killed many of them and destroyed the area. The Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva insists that the people of Thailand wished to live peacefully and hence “The ultimate objective must be to achieve lasting peace, so that both our peoples can live peacefully side-by-side along the Thai-Cambodian border,» (Olivia Rondonuwu and Aditya Suharmoko, 2011) Finally, after a long drawn wait the Thai- Cambodia conflicts were resolved by ASEAN through mediation and hence it has proved itself to be much more than just a bureaucratic organization.


In experiencing and trying to solve both internal and external conflict ASEAN strongly is of the opinion that a multilateral approach in all matters would not only be more realistic but also beneficial to both regional and non- regional members. In lieu of this concern, ASEAN became instrumental in setting up a multilateral framework for security in the Asia Pacific. Thus the ARF (Asian Regional Forum) was established to serve as a constructive venue for its members to deal with each other to maintain their security interests through the spirit of cooperation and peace. They used the tactic of ‘quiet diplomacy’ to try and resolve the conflicts they faced. Describing this (Hiro Katsumata, 2003, p. 107, states that the “quiet diplomacy” in the Southeast Asian context, is often been defined in terms of “the ASEAN Way.” Besides this, they provided a platform for forging closer personal bonds among its member states to strengthen cooperation and leadership.


Amitav Acharya, in Gillian Goh’s “The ASEAN Way”, The Quest for Identity. p. 82

Gillian Goh, The ‘ASEAN Way”, Non- Intervention and the ASEAN’S Role in Conflict Management. Greater East Asia, Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs. p. 113

Hiro Katsumata, (2003) “Reconstruction of Diplomatic Norms in Southeast Asia: The Case of Strict Adherence to the ASEAN Way”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol. 25, No. 1.

Jennifer Robinson, (2010) Future Justice. Self Determination and the Limits of Justice: West Papua and East Timor. p. 169


Marily van Nevel (2011) The Thai – Cambodian Border Conflict: a growing role for ASEAN? European Institute for Asian Studies. EIAS Newsletter. Web. Accessed from


Olivia Rondonuwu and Aditya Suharmoko, (2011) ASEAN summit fails to resolve Thai – Cambodian Conflict. Web. Accessed in September 2014.


Rizal Sukma. ASEAN and Regional Security in East Asia. Security Politics in Asia and Europe.Jakarta, Indonesia. p. 109


Shaun Narine, (1997) in Gillian Goh’s “The ASEAN Way”, ASEAN and the ARF: the limits of the ‘ASEAN Way’. Asian Survey, 35 (9): p. 359

Soesastro, Hadi, ed., in Gillian Goh’s “The ASEAN Way”, ASEAN in a Changed Regional and International Political Economy (Jakarta: Centre for Strategic and International Studies,1995), iii-ix.

Sujane Kanparit, (2013) A Mediator named ASEAN: Lessons from Preah Vihear from the Sarakadee magazine. Web. Accessed in Sept. 2014.


Tommy Koh, (2004) “Southeast Asia”, in Kim Kyung-won, Tommy Koh, and Farooq Sobhan, America’s Role in Asia: Asian Views (San Francisco: The Asia Foundation, p. 38.

William Tow & Brendan Taylor, (2008) in Rizal Sukma’s ‘ASEAN and Regional Security in East Asia. What is Regional Security Architecture?, Paper prepared for the ISA Annual Conference, San Francisco.26 – 29, p.2