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Toward a Greater Role of ASEAN in Conflict Management


Abubakar Eby Hara

After the end of the Cold War, ASEAN has taken some significant steps to maintain its role as a regional organization. The most significant step was to change the paradigm of the organization from a state-based to a people-based organization. It sets up three pillars of ASEAN Community covering Political-Security, Economy and Social and Cultural communities (Acharya 2001). Much of these steps were still initial steps and many people wonder whether they are just other ASEAN empty promises.

One parameter that can be used as an indicator of how far the ASEAN communities have shown its relevance and started functioning is by looking as ASEAN role in conflict management. In this paper, I attempt to see whether the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) has been functioning in dealing with conflicts involving its members. I attempt to elaborate some ASEAN efforts to solve and manage conflicts taking place within ASEAN, which is commonly divided into inter-state (between two or more states) and intra-state conflicts (within a state). This paper is divided into three parts. First, I elaborate ASEAN principles of conflict management. Secondly, I examine some cases that ASEAN have been attempting to solve. Thirdly, I elaborate areas that can strengthen ASEAN management of conflicts based on prior experiences.

ASEAN and Conflict Management

It is important to start this paper by looking at the definition of conflict management. Conflict management is actually a broader term than that such as conflict resolution, conflict prevention and peace building. It is a long term process through which an organization learns to deal, manage and solve conflicts (Rahim 2002: 208). Conflicts in this sense are not seen as simply negative, but they are part of the dynamics of the organization. If they are managed well, they can contribute to the formation of culture and norms of conflict management in the organization.

Conflict management relates to how a conflict is solved in an organization. If it is solved through dialogues, negotiations and other peaceful manners, then the process to solve the conflict contributes to and strengthens the peaceful norms of conflict management in the organization. In contrast, if the conflict was solved by force and war, it will not support the peaceful norms and ways of conflict management. Peaceful conflict resolution may include aspects such as negotiation, mediation, diplomacy and peace-building which are commonly discussed in conflict resolution theories.

Since its formation, ASEAN ways of conflict management has been set up to avoid the use of force and violence. It is stated clearly in ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) 1976 that ASEAN members will use peaceful measures and reject force or threats to use force to solve conflicts. In TAC, ASEAN’s goal is “to promote perpetual peace, everlasting amity and cooperation”. It is guided by a number of key principles including “non-interference in the internal affairs of one another”, “settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means” and “renunciation of the threat or use of force”. 1

1 http://www.aseansec.org/64.htm.

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The practices of solving conflicts or in some ways to avoid open conflicts that take place so far in ASEAN have contributed to ASEAN norms of conflict management. The implementation of ASEAN conflict management is summarized succinctly in the following statement:

While ASEAN was not intended as a mechanism for conflict prevention and peace- building, its record indicates that its norms, principles, and processes, known collectively as the “ASEAN Way” have contributed to peace and stability in a region fraught with bilateral tension and domestic threats to peace and stability at the time of ASEAN’s establishment. For over 30 years, while ASEAN did not directly remove or resolve the causes of these tensions, it succeeded in avoiding their eruption into open conflict and its original members succeeded either in resolving or moderating domestic threats to peace and stability. However, to remain relevant, it needs to re- examine itself in the light of a constantly changing environment’. (ISDS Report 2002).

This quotation shows that ASEAN has indeed developed norms, principles and process of conflict management. However, it also shows that ASEAN needs to be more active implementing its principles of conflict management into practices to make this organization remains relevant. In other words, it needs to involve in conflict resolutions involving conflicts among its member states. In the following part, I attempts to show how ASEAN has dealt with some inter and intra-states conflicts among its members.

ASEAN and Conflict Resolutions

There are some strategies of conflict resolution taken by ASEAN. They involve among others conflict avoidance, negotiation, mediation, cooperation with NGOs and international organizations and peace building. These strategies are interrelated one and another and often cannot be separated. ASEAN states may silent on certain conflicting and sensitive issues such as territorial disputes faced by its members for some times but later on when situation is conducive and good enough, they negotiate to solve the disputes. In other cases, ASEAN plays role as a mediator to solve conflict between members such as between Thai and Cambodia. It also plays roles in persuading Myanmar military junta to release political prisoners and to support reformation in that country.

Conflict Avoidance and Negotiation ASEAN states have some inter-state disputes that have been solved and not been solved. The disputes that have been solved related to territorial conflicts between Singapore and Malaysia over Batu Putih and Pedra Blanca, between Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam over Limbang territory, and between Malaysia and Indonesia over Sipadan and Ligitan islands. The unsettled territorial conflicts are between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah and between Malaysia and Indonesia over Ambalat block in Sulawesi Sea and a few other sea and land borders. Land disputes in border between other members such as between Indonesia and Malaysia in Kalimantan, Thailand and Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand, Malaysia and Brunei over sea border have not been solved either.

With regards to the above settled and unsettled issues, the conflicting parties in ASEAN did not directly address the issues in confrontational manners. But they tended to play down the issues until they were rape enough to be solved. This strategy was called by Michael Antolik (1990) as “diplomacy of accommodation” and “rules of silence and official non-interference”. During the interim period before they really wanted to solve the problems, relations of conflicting states keep improved and better under ASEAN cooperation. They keep having

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interactions, cooperating on many ASEAN cooperation areas and forgetting temporary that they still have some territorial disputes.

During this interim period, two things commonly happen with the conflicting parties. First, they build trust and mutual respects. Perceptions of threat and hatred usually taking place between two conflicting sovereign states did not develop. They build, instead, a sense of friendship and cooperation developed during interactions in ASEAN meetings and dialogues. This helps one country to see another country not as an enemy but friend which it can cooperate with. The construction of friendship and not hatred between the conflicting states inspire both countries to solve their disputes by using peaceful manners for the sake of stability and solidarity as ASEAN members.

Secondly, during the interim time, ASEAN has created many meetings, networks, activities and cooperation that make territorial disputes not their main priority. Given this cooperation, long term interests and mutual benefits of cooperation, the cost of having military confrontation to solve conflict is higher socially and materially than its benefits. Socially, it will jeopardize the stability and peace, required as prerequisite for their economic development that has been conducive in Southeast Asia region. Materially, it will destroy development and stability of the countries involving in the conflicts.

Given this condition, other remaining unresolved territorial disputes between ASEAN members are very possible to be solved by peaceful manners between two friends and members of ASEAN than between two enemies living in an anarchical situation. Although in case of Indonesia and Malaysia, some groups in the domestic politics such as political parties and certain NGOs want Indonesia to have confrontational measures to solve territorial and water dispute with Malaysia, the Indonesia government insists that there have been more benefits to have cooperation and dialogue with Malaysia to resolve many issues than to have a confrontation.

Mediation and Cooperation with International Institutions The next style of conflict management taken by ASEAN is mediation and cooperation with international institutions. Mediation in this paper is defined broader than but cover also the specific role to mediate conflicts between two states invited and assigned by two conflicting states. It involves broader role and broader issues than those in limited mediator roles. It involves mediation by ASEAN as an organization. In Myanmar case for example, ASEAN plays role to convince military government in Myanmar to release main opposition leader Aung San Syu Ki and to have dialogues which produced agreements such as a road map to democracy discussed between ASEAN and Myanmar leaders.

Given the principles of non-intervention, the role of ASEAN in Myanmar was a bit complex. On the one hand, ASEAN members have to follow ASEAN non-intervention principle but on the other hand ASEAN faced pressures from its partners such as the European Union (EU) and the United State of America (USA) to push Myanmar military regime to adopt democracy. The difficulty to deal with Myanmar can be seen in the changes of ASEAN approach from ‘constructive engagement’ to ‘flexible engagement’. (Archarya 2012). In constructive engagement, ASEAN still maintain its non-interference principle by letting Myanmar to solve its own problem. However, given the strong pressure from international community which may implicate on ASEAN image in international community, ASEAN needed to take harsher stand against Myanmar’s Military Regime.

In the ‘flexible engagement’ concept, some ASEAN leaders from Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia, although they did not speak on behalf of ASEAN as an organization,

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stated their strong criticism on Myanmar’s human right violation by the Military regime. The ‘flexible engagement’ reflected the idea of current ASEAN General Secretary Surin Pitsuwan who proposed that strategy during his time as Thailand foreign minister. The strategy allows the association to play a constructive role in preventing or resolving domestic issues with regional implications.In this case, Myanmar human rights policies are a matter of domestic concern, but because ‘… it poses a threat to regional stability, a dose of peer pressure or friendly advice at the right time can be helpful’ (Emmerson, 2008: 77-78). Pitsuwan himself implemented this flexible engagement by making statements on behalf of the association in July 2009 criticizing the Burmese government’s actions against pro-democracy freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyii. At the time, Daw Suu Kyii faced trial for allegedly violating the terms of her house arrest by allowing an American to stay in her house after he swam across a lake to her home.

Although it is not clear whether current changes toward a more open system in Myanmar was due to ASEAN’s policy of ‘flexible engagement’ or due to domestic problems, ASEAN at least has reminded Myanmar military government that total isolation from international community would give benefit to neither its country nor ASEAN.

ASEAN also played important role in helping Myanmar government to rescue victims of Cyclone Nargis disaster. The Myanmar government initially rejected foreign aids particularly from Western countries to help victims of the disaster, being afraid the aids would be misused to intervene in domestic problems of Myanmar. However, with ASEAN intervention, mediation and persuasion, the helps could be conducted. This shows that ASEAN approach to Myanmar is more acceptable for the Myanmar regime than that of Western approach.

Another case where ASEAN involve in certain mediation to solve conflicts in its member was the involvement of Indonesia and Malaysia in helping the Philippines government to deal with Moro movements. Indonesia played a successful role as a third-party facilitator between Manila and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the early 1990s. Indonesia till now continues to take part in helping implement the 1996 Peace Agreement backed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

The mediation done by these two countries was not fully successful since till now there was no clear once for all solutions for Moro issues. The minority Moro did not get clear solution since every result of the meetings was always denied in its implementation. However, the mediation at least has been able to show to both the Philippines governments and Moro liberation movements that they cannot annihilate one and another to maximize their own ultimate goals. The Philippines government has to realize that Moro people has their own identity and been marginalized politically, socially and economically for some time. On the other hand, the Moro is also aware of the realities that demand for an independence as their initial goal was not popular both within the region and in international community. Indonesia and Malaysia convinced that the framework of the dialogue should be based on national sovereignty and territorial integrity for the Philippines. (Legaspi 2009).

Although there have been sporadic violence taking place in Southern Philippines region where the Moro stay, the interactions, meetings and efforts to bring both conflicting parties continue. Malaysia until few years ago has its representative in Moro area to help implement one of the peace agreements made by the two conflicting parties. NGOs in Malaysia and the Philippines are also very active in bringing conflicting members of both the government and the Moro to have meetings and dialogues.

The last case where ASEAN attempted to take part in a kind of mediation was in the conflicts between Thailand and Cambodia over the ownership of a strip of land nearby the

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temple of Preah Vihear. The temple, following the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision, belongs to the Cambodia but the land nearby the Temple was not decided by the ICJ and should be settled by cooperation between Cambodia and Thailand. At the beginning, ASEAN represented by Indonesia to mediate the conflict was not successful. Both parties, particularly Thai government reject the involvement of third party in the conflict.

The involvement of ASEAN in the Thai-Cambodia conflict which killed about 10 to 20 people is necessary. Both countries are members of ASEAN and they should follow the TAC signed in 1976 containing principle to solve problems between members by peaceful way and to reject the threat and the use of force in solving disputes. As the head of ASEAN when the conflict occurred in 2011, Indonesia took initiative to send its representatives. This initiative was not only to make sure that ASEAN members abide to TAC but also because it was supported in ASEAN charter. The Charter allows the parties to a dispute ‘to request the Chairman of ASEAN

or the Secretary-General of ASEAN

to provide good offices, conciliation or mediation’. 2

Indonesia initiative was not really welcome since Thai government wanted the problem solved bilaterally while Cambodian government expected to get wider international attention including ASEAN and the United Nations. The role of ASEAN could not, however, be underestimated. The UN Security Council (UNSC) invited ASEAN together with the two conflicting parties in its meeting on 14 February 2011. The meeting called on the two sides to restraint and established ‘a permanent ceasefire’ and used dialogue to solve their problems. The UNSC also supported ASEAN role to mediate and require both parties to cooperate with ASEAN. (Kesavapany 2011).

The conflict, however, did not stop immediately after the meeting, because Thai’s government was not happy with the involvement of the UN and ASEAN. Cambodia’s government once again asked the ICJ to intervene and then the ICJ issued a decision on 18 July 2011, ordering both countries to withdraw troops immediately from the temple and the contested surrounding areas. The ICJ also showed area that should be demilitarized. ASEAN was asked by the ICJ to take part in this demilitarization zone as observers.

Although ASEAN role represented by Indonesia was initially disregarded by Thailand, ASEAN role cannot be denied. The ICJ always asked both conflicting parties to involve ASEAN to monitor conflict resolution process. The tension between Thai and Cambodia reduced after Yingluck Shinawatra — Thaksin’s sister — and her Pheu Thai Party won the July 2011 elections. Yingluck allowed observers into the demilitarized zone and honor the ICJ’s order. Then a Regional Border Committee was set up to bring both parties to negotiate their case. (Ngoun


Negotiation and conflict resolution One case that concern ASEAN in the last 30 years and is increasingly relevant nowadays is territorial claims involving some ASEAN members over Spratly islands in South China Sea. Almost all ASEAN countries together with China and Taiwan claim part or all of the islands as their territory. For example, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam claim the whole of the South China Sea based on old records and their historical rights on the sea lane. Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines claim some parts of the islands, based on United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provision of 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone from shores of their countries.

After being calm for sometimes, tension in the area rose again when China and the Philippines deployed their military power following the clashes between Chinese fishing vessels

2 http://www.aseansec.org/publications/ASEAN-Charter.pdf

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and Philippine Navy’s warship, BRP Gregorio del Pilar. On April 2012, China sent an aircraft and one maritime vessel to frighten a Philippine vessel near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. The tension was also increased by joint military training between the US and the Philippines designed to face likely war in South China Sea.

ASEAN has been quite active in arranging meetings among conflicting parties to handle and reduce tensions. ASEAN uses strategy to have the issue discussed multilaterally involving the whole claimants of the islands whereas China wants to have separate meetings based on state to state basis. Despite the strategy, however, ASEAN has not stand together to face non- ASEAN states particularly China. Cambodia, for example, which has close relations with China and depend on China aids, did not want to be seen to confront China in ASEAN meetings to discuss Spratly issues. In ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting at Phnom Penh in 2012, where Cambodia serves its turn to lead ASEAN, the ministers failed for the first time since the organization set up 45 years ago, to have a joint communiqué regarding one issue. As for the Spratly case, Cambodia foreign minister said that he did not want to confront China by mentioning that country directly in the communiqué.

Diplomatic efforts, however, have been conducted to search for common stand and strategy after the meeting. With intensive approaches by Indonesia, ASEAN finally agree on a ‘code of conduct’. Indonesia’s foreign minister Marty Natalegawa contacted some ASEAN foreign ministers in "intensive shuttle diplomacy" to restore ASEAN unity. 3 After these intensive diplomatic measures by Indonesian foreign minister, the foreign ministers of the 10 members of ASEAN reached a consensus on ASEAN's six-point principles on the South China Sea. The statement, however, does not include any direct reference on South China issue and contains only general principles to be followed in dealing with the case. The principles include the following items:

‘… the full implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002, the support for the guidelines of the DOC in 2011, the need for an early conclusion of a regional code of conduct on the South China Sea, the full respect for the universally-recognized principles of international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the continued exercise of self restraint and non-use of force by all parties, and the peaceful resolution of conflicts in accordance with universally- recognized principles of international law including the 1982 UNCLOS.4

The disputes over Spratly islands would continue for some time and become concerns for this organization since tensions may erupt anytime. ASEAN encourages the claimants to have meetings and may share the exploration of those oil-rich islands together, but some claimants have their own sovereignty to decide what they want to do. The latest disputes between China and the Philippines showed that ASEAN has no control to push its agenda. This, however, should not discourage ASEAN members, including the non-claimant’s states, to get actively involved in finding solution such as to make the disputed islands areas for cooperation such as in exploring oils and gases.

APSC Role: Challenges and Prospects

3 Xinhua http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=829785&publicationSubCategoryId=200

4 Xinhua http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=829785&publicationSubCategoryId=200

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The cases shown above indicated that ASEAN has attempted to implement its platform for conflict management in the region. It attempted to build cultures and norms to solve problems by peaceful way and reject the use of force and the threat to use force as being set up in the TAC and the ASEAN Charter. It also now set up an APSC aimed at creating a rules-based Community of shared values and norms; a cohesive, peaceful, stable and resilient region with shared responsibility for comprehensive security including a dynamic and outward-looking region in an increasingly integrated and interdependent world (Chiam 2009).

ASEAN has been quite successful for some time to pacify conflicting tendencies and to calm down potential border dispute between its members. Some constructive mechanisms to solve border dispute has been shown by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore by bringing their unresolved territorial disputes to the ICJ. Under the spirit and solidarity of ASEAN, these countries rely on international institution to help. They are also committed to follow whatever decisions made by the ICJ.

The role of ASEAN is also noticeable as a mediator in Myanmar, Moro and Thai- Cambodian conflicts. Some ASEAN leaders has asked Myanmar military regime to release political prisoners, to stop human rights violation and to open its political system to a more democratic way within ASEAN spirit. Similarly it also attempts to bring Moro movements and the Philippines government to always sit down and negotiate their disputes. Lastly, ASEAN took part as a mediator in Thai-Cambodian conflicts and monitor the ceasefire process in disputed land near the Temple.

The last case shown above is the role of ASEAN in the settlement of South China Sea disputes. ASEAN main efforts were indeed to solve the problem in peaceful manner through dialogues and negotiation. ASEAN attempts to set up a code of conduct as main principles to solve the disputed islands and want to have it solved trough multilateral channels instead of bilateral methods where the solution involving only two conflicting countries.

There have been mixed results of ASEAN roles in the above cases. ASEAN members, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have been successful to solve border issues by using the ICJ and committed to implement the ICJ decisions. There have been also some ongoing negotiations regarding territorial dispute such as between Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam over Limbang territory (Sulaiman 2003), between Indonesia and Malaysia over the Ambalat Sea Block in the Sulawesi Sea. These ongoing negotiations show that countries involved also commit to solve their claims by peaceful way.

However, these successes cannot be used as a perimeter to conclude that ASEAN conflict management has been very successful. Some cases such as the military conflicts between Thailand and Cambodia killing dozen people, the ups and downs of Indonesia-Malaysia relationship instigated by unresolved sea and land border lines, and the potency of Sabah issues to reemerge, show that ASEAN principles of conflict management still lies on a shaky ground.

Recent crisis between Thai and Cambodia shows that when it comes to domestic interests of a country, the relations between states or even ASEAN solidarities and principles can be sidelined. Nationalistic spirits and rivalry in domestic politics, for example, have contributed to the tensions between Thailand and Cambodia and to a lesser degree, between Indonesia and Malaysia. To a lesser degree, Sabah issue was also played by certain Philippines political groups to attract support by for example putting Sabah in the Map of the Philippines.

The above domestic factors are beyond ASEAN to control. In particular, when members of ASEAN become democratic states, a decision cannot be made solely by the government but

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should also consider different domestic opinions. In this situation, there have been some important steps that ASEAN members can consider. First, government of ASEAN states needs to commit to ASEAN way of conflict resolution such as agreed in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation which is now codified in ASEAN Charter. They need to continually convince their people of the benefit having stable and orderly region that can make possible the development of each country. When conflicts between domestic and regional interests happen, the government of each state needs to bridge these differences in a way that cannot destroy good relations between states and ASEAN in general.

Secondly, ASEAN also needs to build a strong and fix mechanism of conflict resolution to overcome open military conflicts erupting between two states. Thai and Cambodian conflicts show the urgency of such mechanism. The signs of conflicts and tensions between these two states have been occurring for long time since 2008, but since ASEAN has no operating mechanism to intervene and fearing that such action may contradict its non-intervention principles, there were no action taken by ASEAN. Learnt from this conflict, it is urgent for ASEAN to initiate such a mechanism to solve disputes. This has actually been written in the 2009 Political-Security Community Blueprint that attempts to build a strategy to prevent conflicts “that could potentially pose a threat to regional peace and stability”. In a conversation with Head of Universiti Sains Malaysia Peace Center, ASEAN has also planned to set up ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR), which will become a kind of ASEAN states-led Institute. 5 It is expected that ASEAN can materialize this as soon as possible before other open intra-ASEAN conflicts happen again.


ASEAN has attempted to renew its relevance by embracing an ASEAN community by 2020 with its three pillars. One way to examine the extent to which this community has worked is by looking at how ASEAN has been able to create peaceful environment by helping its member solve their disputes. ASEAN has indeed set up norms and principles of conflict management and resolution but the implementation of that norm into practical conflict resolution is often lacking. ASEAN has played roles as a mediator for border disputes between two members and for internal conflict of its member such as Moro case in the Philippines. It also attempted to play roles in Myanmar and Spratly Island dispute involving ASEAN members and external states. However, none of these efforts has been completed fully.

In the spirit of Community, particularly APSC, the presence of ASEAN to solve the above case should be stronger than before and felt significant and helpful by people suffering from the conflicts. ASEAN should have an operating mechanism to act directly to overcome its internal ASEAN crisis before it becomes internationalized. This mechanism becomes urgent since some flashpoints of conflicts remain exist such as between Thailand and Cambodia, between Indonesia and Malaysia, and between some ASEAN members and China in South China Sea. Open military clashes even took place between Thai and Cambodia which questioned further the role of ASEAN conflict management strategies. The mechanism should be used to prevent such thing from happening again in the future.

55 Personal communication with Dr Kamarulzaman Askandar, Head of the Peace Unit, USM, Penang, Malaysia.

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