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ASEAN is more than it may seem

Regional grouping is still relevant after all these years

Signing of Bangkok Declaration, Aug.8, 1967 (Courtesy of ASEAN Secretariat)

The world widely assumed that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was an economic community like the European Economic Community when it came into being. It may look as if it is a regional economic grouping. But that was not the purpose behind the establishment of ASEAN in 1967.

The countries of Southeast Asia may be close to each other geographically. But they have very different backgrounds, particularly in terms of their divergent experiences in the colonial era.

While Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar were colonized by the British, Indonesia experienced Dutch colonial rule; the Philippines Spanish and American colonialism; and Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, French rule. Only Thailand remained independent throughout. They all inherited the systems and the world views of their colonial masters.

Upon gaining independence, they found themselves strangers to each other. Indeed, some held such opposing views that they fell prone to violent solutions to their conflicts.

The initial undeclared wars were between Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. Indonesia objected to the inclusion of the South Borneo states into Malaysia while the Philippines claimed British North Borneo as its territory. Unchecked, the tendency toward conflicts could have ruined the newly independent countries of Southeast Asia.

But wise council prevailed among the group's leaders. Wishing to remove the conflicts from the battlefields and shift them to the conference table, three Southeast Asian countries had in 1961 formed the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) -- a grouping of Malaya, Thailand and the Philippines; basically an anti-communist bloc. There was also another grouping formed in 1963 called Maphilindo -- comprising Malaya, the Philippines and Indonesia but the initiative did not go far.

ASA on the other hand was later on enlarged to include Indonesia and Singapore, and eventually became ASEAN. The group's solidly anti-communist stance was dropped.

Ministers from the original five ASEAN members at the Bang Saen conference in Thailand in 1967 (Courtesy of Bangkok Post)

But it was not to be an economic union in the style of the European Economic Community. It was modestly intended to be a forum for discussion and conflict resolution by the leaders of the five nations.

And indeed the "ASEAN-5" grouping succeeded in doing this. The confrontations between them were resolved.With the end of conflict the leaders began to think of other beneficial objectives. Invariably, economic cooperation dominated the discussion.

Together the markets of the five countries had become very big. True their economies and their per capita incomes were still those of poor developing countries. But the needs of even poor people are a substantial force when their numbers are big.

Although the initial allocations agreed between them of heavy industries such as steel, fertilizer and manufacturing did not really transpire, the idea of a free trade zone caught on. Today there is a working free trade agreement between all 10 member countries of ASEAN.

In the early days, leaders of ASEAN countries tended to serve long terms. There were very few changes. As a result ,they truly formed close brotherly relation between them. This facilitated solutions to all nature of problems between them.

Seeing the benefits that accrued to the five founding countries, the other five Southeast Asian nations decided to join the group. ASEAN has now grown in importance -- to the extent that the countries of East and South Asia, Europe and America decided to participate in ASEAN deliberations, either on a bilateral or group basis.

There have been many regional groupings of countries after they achieve independence. But it can be claimed that ASEAN is one of the few which has been able to sustain itself and stay relevant in world affairs today.

Mahathir bin Mohamad was prime minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003.

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