'Asean for Asean people'
By Sonia Kaur & Malek Hashim

Forty years since the five founding leaders gathered to form Asean in a seaside sub-district of Lam Taen in Thailand, yesterday 10 new generations of leaders of a much stronger and much larger Asean gathered once again in the coastal district of Cha-am to chart a new course for the Asean dream - that is 'Asean for Asean people'.

This being the first summit held with the new Asean Charter, His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam and nine leaders of the Asean nations attended the formal opening of the 14th Asean Summit yesterday.

The opening ceremony began with a heart-warming documentary on Asean history which featured Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva telling the story of the group since it was born in Chonburi's Lam Taen in 1967.

In his landmark speech, the Thai Premier called the 14th Asean Summit the turning point in Asean history. He drew a lot of praise in his attempt to push forward the Asean Charter to fruition, where he promised that during the Thai chairmanship, the dream and visions of the Asean founding fathers will put to Godspeed.

Building an environment of peace and prosperity, enhancing engagement with external partners and strengthening regional reliance formed the theme of his speech, but he also promised to join together with other "citizens of Asean" to make Asean as a household name.

Abhisit said, the journey over the last 40 years has led us to the fulfillment of one dream, that of Asean's Founding Fathers, and to the beginning of yet another - that of building and completing a people-centered, dynamic and compassionate Asean Community for all.

"It is not for the rich and the powerful but for the people of our community. It is not in the number of countries we have but in the strength of our unity. We must move not only in unison but also in the same direction. It is not how old we are but how much we achieved in the past and will achieve in the future," Abhisit stated.

He also said Asean has developed strong bonds of friendship and cooperation by forging mutual confidence and trust and working together for a common cause. "In times of crisis, we have jointly tackled problems. In times of peace, we have created opportunities for our people. No matter what the challenges were, from conflict during the Cold War to the financial crisis of 1997, we in Asean have come through by acting together."

Starting with five, Asean is now 10 -a grouping of unique diversity, yet firmly united in a common purpose. It is with this common purpose, Abhisit said, that Asean is destined to become a more integrated, more effective and more compassionate community that serves its most important stakeholders, namely, the peoples of Asean.

This 14th summit, Abhisit said, leaders gathered here for the first Asean Summit under a new Asean Charter, which together with the plan of action for all three pillars of the Asean Community, serves as a blueprint for a common Asean future.

"Most importantly, in forging ahead, Asean will put people first - in its vision, in its policies, and in its action plan," Abhisit said. "That is why we have chosen the theme 'Asean Charter for Asean Peoples", he added.

Abhisit called leaders to intensify efforts at community-building so that Asean can become a significant force for promoting peace and stability.

"For a politically secure community, we need to proceed with the shaping and sharing of regional norms and codes of conduct that will serve to reinforce trust and confidence amongst our peoples and region," Abhisit posed.

"For a socio-cultural community, we need to become a more sharing and caring society, ensuring that the human security needs of our peoples are met," he said.

He ascertained that Asean needs to be more rules-based. Having been conferred legal personality, it must be credible and transparent in the way it conducts business.

For Asean to be more people-centered, protection and promotion of human rights and fundemental freedoms has to be a key feature, he stated. In doing so, Asean needs to promote public participation for community-building.

He also called Asean to strengthen links with the rest of the world and revitalize Asean's role and contributions in regional frameworks, institutions and processes.

For Asean to extend its hand of partnership, to dialogue partners and external parties alike. links with the outside region is crucial, for in this interdependent and globalised world, no man is an island, no region or country can stand alone. The world is interconnected, he said, part of the global whole. - Borneo Bulletin (1st Mar 2009)