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5 Sep, 2012

Sec-Gen Surin: ASEAN Identity, Cultural Integration As Important As Economics To Avoid Conflict

Exclusive Report by Imtiaz Muqbil, Executive Editor, Travel Impact Newswire

BANGKOK – In a frank and forthright SWOT analysis of the future of regional integration, ASEAN Secretary-General Dr Surin Pitsuwan has warned that the birth of the ASEAN Community will create both “winners and losers”, and the management of ethnic, religious and identity differences in one of the world’s most culturally diverse regions will be equally as important as creating economic opportunities. He called for this subject to be discussed in all industry forums on ASEAN integration, saying that such dialogue was critical for promoting mutual understanding and preventing conflict.

Dr Surin was speaking on August 24 at a Seminar on “Religious Pluralism in ASEAN” organised by Assumption Business Administration College (ABAC), one of Thailand’s leading educational institutions. Opening the seminar, Dr. Clausepeter Hill, Thailand Representative, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, which provided funding support, expressed hope that the seminar would help contribute to a brighter future and prosperity of the peoples of the region.

He said, “ASEAN is defined by ethnic and religious pluralism. In a globalised world, this diverse and pluralistic region is facing quite some new challenges (as the countries) are integrating and working together much closer than in the past. That will bring a lot of problems and challenges. The challenge now is how to live in harmony and mutual respect for a better future.”

Quote startAll religions share a great deal of common ground and it is necessary in my view to highlight this and make it useful in the political and national process for the way people live and work together. Quote end

Dr Hill called for a deeper search for the “common grounds of values, ethnicities and philosophies of different religions. All religions share a great deal of common ground and it is necessary in my view to highlight this and make it useful in the political and national process for the way people live and work together. Religions have great potential for peace. The presentations will highlight this.”

Dr Surin’s keynote address did full justice to this expectation. He began by stressing the geographical and cultural assets of the ASEAN region, as well as the economic potential of a 600 million population base that had attracted the attention of global dialogue partners — China, India Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and lately the U.S. and Russia. “Politically it is vibrant, partly because this is a vast region, full of opportunities but at the same time full of fault-lines and flashpoints (that can potentially lead to) conflicts and tensions between us and amongst us. Anything that happens to this part of the world will have a lot of implications for five or 10 years (in future). When you become the centre of a growing region, members of the global community will want to be a part of it, to articulate and promote their interests and share their vision of the global community in the ASEAN landscape. We cannot avoid potential tension and conflict in the region.”

At the same time, he said, “within our 600 million people, we have also diversity, ethnic differences, civilizational differences. The largest Muslim country in the world is not in the heartland of Islam or the Middle East, South Asia or Africa. It is here, in Southeast Asia. It is Indonesia where 88-89% of its 240 million people are Muslims.” Similarly, the Philippines is the region’s only Catholic-majority country, both the Hinayana and Mahayana branches of Buddhism can be found in ASEAN (Myanmar and Thailand) and Bali is a Hindu-majority island.


This diversity is a strength but also poses the threat of becoming a weakness. Said Dr Surin: “As the region moves forward for economic integration, for prosperity and cooperation, there will be losers and winners on the landscape. Some communities will take full advantage of the opportunities. But there will be sub-communities and sub-cultures who may not be quite ready to take full advantage. Some of them may feel insecure about losing their own identities. Others may be enhanced in their confidence in the prosperity that they are gaining.

Quote startWho will be the beneficiaries of this (economic growth potential) when the communities are not quite ready equally to take advantage of it?Quote end

“And ethnicity is something rather peculiar. It can be very dormant, peaceful and calm but once the landscape loses its balance, whether that balance comes because of the prosperity of some or the disadvantage of others or even common prosperity for all, the delicate balance among and between ethnic, religious and civilizational groups may be affected and we have to be extremely careful that we can manage the new balance that we need in order to keep the landscape secure, stable, calm and progressive into the future.

“This is the challenge for the 600 million people of ASEAN, how to manage this to enjoy the full benefit of the potential — 2.4 trillion dollars combined GDP, 6.7% annual growth, about 100 billion dollars coming from outside. Who will be the beneficiaries of this (economic growth potential) when the communities are not quite ready equally to take advantage of it?”

Dr Surin used his home-country, Thailand, as an example. “In Thailand, you can see the problems in the deep south. It is a problem of adjustment, identity, ownership of the process, a sense of belonging into this big process of nation building.” He noted that Prof Dr Chaiwat Satha-anand, a Muslim, had been the main author of the National Reconciliation Commission report. Dr Surin recalled that former Prime Minister Mr. Anand Panyarachun, the NRC chairman, right at the outset had reminded the commission members of their own ancestry, noting that his own father was a Hmong who probably migrated from Myanmar and his mother was a Chinese who had once been derogatorily referred to as a “chek.”


Dr Surin recalled Mr. Anand asking the commission members, “Who amongst you illustrious individuals of this country are 100% Thai? No-one replied. Everybody looked down. And these were all eminent people – from government, the military, the judiciary, academia.” Dr Surin further quoted Mr. Anand’s words that less than four generations ago, the Thai people who now occupy the Thai heartland, the valley of the Chao Phraya river, had all come from somewhere else. “So who are we to impose (solutions) upon those people in the deep south, on people who have been there hundreds of years before us?”

Added Dr Surin, “The wisdom of that rhetorical question is this: Thailand is a pluralistic society. It is not homogenous. The same is true of all members of ASEAN. We are all part of a heterogeneous and pluralistic society. This 4% of the global space that we occupy, probably the most diverse region of all, we have it all.”

He cited Europe as an example, noting the challenges it had faced over the various periods of history, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution down to the present day. A large part of the entire migration process from Europe to the U.S., the “new world” was to seek religious freedom. Today, he said, Europe’s diversity and differences still exist and the political structure has evolved to accommodate that.

Quote startWhat is right is right not because somebody says it is right but because it is humanly understandable.Quote end

“It has become pragmatic, open, effective enough to contain the religious sentiments and differences so that the Catholics and Protestants do not have to fight each other but can work and co-exist and continue to worship the same God, the same Christ, but in different ways. That’s religious tolerance.  In this process of evolution, European thinkers and philosophers developed what I would call ‘rational ethics for modernity.’ What is right is right not because somebody says it is right but because it is humanly understandable. Not because of what is in the sacred books – although it may draw some inspiration from them — but it is also rational, reasonable, something that we can agree upon as human beings, not as a members of religious communities.”


“We need to encourage this,” Dr Surin said. “Without leaving your own tradition and while drawing inspiration from sacred texts, how can we also allow rationality and human intelligence to come about so that we can share and live together. Because at the transcendental level, we are all talking about the same thing, the connectivity between every individual soul and the Creator. The relationship between the soul and each individual is just a reflection of that. It is a theory called the transcendental unity of religions. It is at a level that few people can understand.”

He added, “When we speak in human language, we speak in symbolisms, and symbolisms tend to clash because we believe they are the truth. Problem is that we tend to fight each other, get emotional about each other and feel sensitive about our own symbols. That’s why I say we may need a new language, a language or rationality, a language of rationalism, a language of reason. Language that would try to navigate in between symbolism and (promote an) understanding of the realities and the truth. But that’s not going to be easy.”

Dr Surin then connected this first part of his speech to the issue of ASEAN diversity and integration.

His first point, he said, is that “We (in ASEAN) are diverse and will continue to be diverse and our people will have to continue to live within diversity. Mutual respect, helping each other, understanding each other and helping and sharing with each other in these challenges that we certainly will face in the future. Economic progress is well and good, but what is even more important than just 6.7% growth, better than 2.4 trillion dollars worth of GDP, what is more important is equitable distribution of growth and the fruits of the development process. This distribution will depend on the quality, competitiveness and readiness of all people and communities here in ASEAN. If they are not qualified, competitive and ready, they are not going to be able to fully benefit from the growth.

Hence, he said, his second point was that “Some of the religious communities are not quite yet convinced that growth itself is the answer, or that it should be the goal and the objective of their communities. Some may be saying, we are not materialistic, we are not being consumed by the desire and the passion just for wealth, we are looking for a different pathway into the future. And we are not prepared. That is going to be a challenge for governments of ASEAN — how to prepare and convince and share the distribution of growth.

“Some religious communities will resist some of the changes. The political and economic contexts of each of the member states are not going to be convincing enough for them to believe that growth and development are for them. Look at the southern Philippines, South Thailand or even the Rakhine state in Burma, (they are not) fully committed to growth, growth, growth. They are looking at and hoping for something else. Growth plus, dignity, freedom, space, sense of ownership and sense of belonging.”


Dr Surin said Aceh in Indonesia was once facing that kind of challenge but has come to terms with itself in the post-2004 tsunami reconstruction period. “So it’s not only growth, not only prosperity, but how are we going to manage the different desires, the different passions and different needs of different communities.

Quote startThere is a need for a cultural dialogue, civilizational dialogue, religious dialogue, like this more and more. We need such a dialogue, such exchange and conversation at all levels of society.Quote end

His third point was to compliment ABAC for holding such a seminar and call for it to be expanded beyond. “There is a need for a cultural dialogue, civilizational dialogue, religious dialogue, like this more and more. We need such a dialogue, such exchange and conversation at all levels of society. Not only among religious leaders, not only along elites, academia and ‘people of the robes, garbs, turbans.’ They represent the highest level of religious leadership in their own communities. But that’s not enough. The question is: How to bring this language down to the grassroots level and let them feel that yes, there is space for discussion and dialogue, respect, recognition and a sense of mutual respect and (an accommodation of) the differences that we have developed.

“We need that at all levels, in high school, primary school, at the kindergarten. (A recognition) that ‘thou shall now live in a world of diversity from now.’ Globalisation and the nexus between globalisation and I.T. will not allow us to live in isolation anymore. We have to appreciate and respect the differences amongst us and between us.”

Dr Surin then raised his fourth and final point. “When we embark upon regional cooperation, integration and competition, there will be winners and losers in our communities and societies. While we promote those who are capable of competing, we must also think of the people who will be in the loss of this growth and prosperity, and what would help them to live their (normal lives) and maintain their identity. Or to explain why they are not catching up. Often times it is religious sentiments, teachings, religious symbolism. That’s where we have to be extremely careful.

Quote startReligious passion, religious motivation, religious inspiration can be very constructive and positive but in the midst of competition, with losers and winners, it can also be very negative.Quote end

“In the competition, people will be divided by the symbols, the colours of the dress, the languages they speak, the various values and norms that they pursue. These are things that will (shape) the future in the midst of the competition. And if we are not careful, there will be tensions and violence, rather than positive cooperation and contribution to community building. And you will see that across the landscape of ASEAN and various regions in various member states. That’s why (ASEAN) leaders and ministers are very, very conscious of how to manage the diversity in the midst of growth and cooperation with dialogue partners, and certainly in the midst of integration. How to give the community a human face, a human face that has different manifestations and values. How to give them a legitimate and respectful space within those communities?

“Religious passion, religious motivation, religious inspiration can be very constructive and positive but in the midst of competition, with losers and winners, it can also be very negative. Scholars, diplomats and academics at such prestigious institutions and from others must consider this very subject. (ASEAN leaders) are very much aware of the challenges before them. That’s why the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community is being pursued as aggressively, as consciously, as the economic community, and the political and security community. Because without a strong human cultural community, ASEAN will be on a very flimsy foundation.”


Dr Surin cited the Indonesian slogan, “From the diversity and energies of the landscape, you become one.” You maintain unity in the midst of the diversity. The only strategy to achieve that is through compassion, “mettha”, sharing and caring. That’s what it says in the last two lines of the ASEAN emblem – we dare to dream of one community but we know that there are challenges. That’s why we care to share. We want to make sure that all can realise the full potential of catching up with the rest under the umbrella of ASEAN.”

He concluded, “I hope this is the beginning of many more such deliberations. It cannot stop in this air-conditioned room. It has to go out. That is the challenge before all of us.”

Dr Surin then took a few questions. Not surprisingly, the first question was about South Thailand and what solution he could offer to alleviating the situation there.

In response, Dr Surin said that the South Thailand situation is “a problem of identity and how to live that identity, a problem of respect for that identity.” He noted that in his Harvard doctoral thesis way back in 1982, he had been the first to refer to the people of South Thailand as Malay Muslims because they spoke Malay, not Thai. Hence, the local language is important. However, “it took Thai officialdom a long, long time to come to terms with that fact or reality.” Many decades later, when Gen Sorayuth assumed the premiership, he acknowledged that the problem in the south is access to justice. “The problem is that they don’t have full access to justice. Impunity is still very much the rule, not the exception.”

Quote startEthnicity and identity are actually becoming more and more pronounced in the age of globalisation.Quote end

Dr Surin also cited other issues, such as equal access to opportunities and the politics of identity. Although the language of the national security policy is good and designed to promote co-existence amongst Muslims and Buddhists, its success will depend on the implementation and level of coordination amongst various government agencies. Dr Surin said government agencies still had a tradition of sending officials to South Thailand as some kind of punishment and then recalling them when they are absolved.

“That part of the country deserves good people. This is in line with the policy of King Rama 6 which was to find someone who can work with them and understand them, speak the language, and is intelligent and sensitive to their problems. The advice of the present King Bhumibhol (Rama 9) is the same – “understand them, have access to them and help them develop.” It’s very simple. But it’s extremely difficult for all agencies to work together to come up one common set of values.” Same policy exists in the ASEAN Charter. But again it’s not easy, there are problems here, there and everywhere but at least there is a consciousness, a recognition that differences need to be respected. If we don’t there will be problems in future.”

Dr Surin added, “Ethnicity and identity are actually becoming more and more pronounced in the age of globalisation. There is now a greater level of consciousness and this needs to be recognised. The best answer to that is to allow everybody to have more than just identity. (For example,) I am a Thai, a Muslim, diplomat, an alumnus of Thammasat university and other universities abroad. In my daily life, I can twist and turn and use the various dimensions of my identity in order to carry myself through the day, with full confidence, with the expectation that others will respect and appreciate who I am in that particular dimension at that particular moment.

“Until we can develop such a system that will give full play to every dimension of your identity, you will not get there. ASEAN needs to be conscious of that, it wants to do that. But as I said, it is much more difficult to do say than to say. But at least we recognise it and want it to (be part of the) policies of every ASEAN state.”