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With reference to the July 19 article by Felix Soh on the ASEAN Regional Forum (“Security issues may be too hot to handle for ASEAN bloc”), as former foreign affairs secretary of the Philippines under two presidents during 1995-2001, I wish to clarify several points of regional and historical interest.

First of all, it is incorrect to attribute inertia on the part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations during the 1999 violence in East Timor. Just before the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in September 1999 in New Zealand, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and then-Philippines President Joseph Estrada agreed that the Philippines would contribute around 700 soldiers to an eventual U.N. peacekeeping operation. This decision was taken in consultation with then-Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas. Later, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore also sent their contingents. At a foreign ministers’ meeting in Auckland before the APEC summit, which included Australia, the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Britain (representing the European Union), it was agreed that Australia should not unilaterally send forces to East Timor. ASEAN efforts to find a peaceful solution to the East Timor problem go back years before the crisis, with ASEAN engaging Portugal and the EU in dialogues.

Second, it is not correct to describe ARF’s achievements as confined only to the realm of confidence-building. In 1997, when Cambodia almost plunged into civil war, the ASEAN Troika of Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, along with the Friends of Cambodia and the U.N., engaged the warring factions in a dialogue and convinced them to hold elections in 1998. The ASEAN Troika and Japan were again instrumental in convincing the Cambodian parties to accept the results of the elections, which restored peace and stability in the country and paved the way for Cambodia’s accession to ASEAN.

As a leading member of the “coalitions of the willing,” ASEAN exhibited remarkable initiative and flexibility in both East Timor and Cambodia. In fact, in close partnership with the United Nations and other interested countries and agencies, ASEAN and ARF have taken the first steps toward conflict resolution. Handing the helm of regional security to the major players would not necessarily bring about smoother results, primarily because the major players still have to resolve major differences and suspicions among themselves. Even the major players acknowledge the advantages of the ASEAN practice of operating quietly and without much publicity.

It is always the case that in international and regional organizations, the consent and degree of cooperation of the members determine how far and how fast the group can go. In this sense, ARF, which is considerably younger than the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has proven to be a successful and viable security forum. No other arrangement could have convinced North Korea to join a security forum. In negotiating for North Korea’s membership, former Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan and I were actively involved. North Korea joined in 2000, at the seventh ARF meeting.

ARF is an evolving organization. In Wednesday’s ARF Ministerial Meeting in Brunei, in which I participated as head of the Philippines delegation, new ideas and initiatives were proposed and discussed. All 23 members of ARF are committed to making the organization relevant and progressive.

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