ASEAN needs observers to monitor the peace in its own backyard
ASEAN needs observers to monitor the peace in its own backyard
Two Years On, China Still Holds Michael Kovrig in Arbitrary Detention
Two Years On, China Still Holds Michael Kovrig in Arbitrary Detention
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

ASEAN needs observers to monitor the peace in its own backyard

Unarmed monitors have made news in recent weeks with the United Nations Security Council’s creation of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria to oversee the peace agreement brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan. Indonesia immediately offered to deploy six of its Lebanon-based peacekeepers to support this mission.

But Jakarta does not need to send its soldiers to the other side of the world to make a difference. There are peace agreements to be monitored in its very own backyard. Before this can happen though, ASEAN’s member states need a new mind-set for dealing with regional conflicts.

The rapid pace of peacemaking in Myanmar may soon create a new challenge. Since signing their first agreement on January 12, the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Myanmar government have been discussing a role for local and foreign observers. “It is very important for the international community to keep watching,” said Naw May Oo Mutraw, a KNU spokeswoman.

If a new monitoring mechanism is created, it will set an important precedent that could then be reflected in any future deal with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). Even if the recent uptick in clashes between the KIO and Myanmar government forces is cause for concern, the prospect of a cease-fire has improved following the creation of a new peace panel. Now, ASEAN members need to decide whether they can play a role in monitoring this important part of Myanmar’s national reconciliation process.

Monitors need not be uniformed soldiers or wear blue helmets. In negotiating the terms of reference for Indonesian observers to go to the Thai-Cambodian border in April and May of 2011, Thai diplomats went to some length to address the nationalistic concerns of their soldiers about the presence of foreign troops. “No military in the world likes to have foreign soldiers on their soil,” one retired Thai general told me.

It was a weak argument, as he knew very well that the Thai Army had itself volunteered to join the Australia-led INTERFET peacekeeping force in East Timor in 1999 and the joint ASEAN-EU Aceh Monitoring Mission in 2005, which deployed military-civilian teams. The Indonesian monitors for the Thai-Cambodian border were also to be mixed.

Jakarta showed flexibility, conceding that its enlisted men need not wear uniforms, insignia, rank or even flags. “We didn’t care what they wore,” one Indonesian official told me at the time. “We were ready to dress them like Pak Camat (subdistrict chiefs) if they would allow them to deploy.” It is such pragmatism for peace – substance over form – that needs to be encouraged within ASEAN.

There is active monitoring in Southeast Asia, but not through ASEAN structures. In the southern Philippines, the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team (IMT) has worked to cement the cease-fire between Muslim insurgents and the government. The April 24 “decision points on principles” between the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front  envision a role for monitors after the parties sign a peace agreement, which would likely draw on countries and organizations already involved in the IMT and International Contact Group that attend the negotiations.

It has been more than a year since Cambodia signed terms of reference on May 5, 2011 inviting Indonesian observers onto its soil around the Preah Vihear temple to monitor a shaky verbal truce. As yet another anniversary of this unfulfilled agreement passed this month, it is a reminder that there is still more to do to convince ASEAN members of the merits of observers.

With the demand for monitors continuing, it is worth reflecting on why the 2011 attempt to deploy them along the Thai-Cambodian border failed. While civilian leaders in Bangkok agreed to the plan as part of an ASEAN framework, the Thai Army considered it an insult and thus the deployment was blocked.

Indulging such obstinacy is a lingering problem for ASEAN. If not countered, it will become the default response by members. Internationally, inaction will be seen as one of its norms rather than a can-do attitude towards resolving conflict.

Its own political-security community blueprint envisages a “cohesive, peaceful and resilient region with shared responsibility for comprehensive security,” but limits observers to just watching military exercises. Without a more proactive stance, the vision for the region’s security will remain only pretty words with potential cooperation on other regional security issues through multilateral frameworks such as the ASEAN Regional Forum or East Asia Summit increasingly impeded.

Thailand and Cambodia also have a legal obligation to deploy observers to monitor the provisional demilitarized zone ordered by the International Court of Justice. Ignoring such obligations is a black mark against all in the region, especially as ASEAN members try to burnish their credentials as good global citizens by participating in other missions in places such as Syria.

ASEAN needs workable ways of dealing with its own conflicts, whether inside or outside its formal structures. Monitors are but one tool in what should be a better equipped regional toolbox. Rather than focus all attention on creating a new body, such as the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, it needs to take concrete steps to make peace now.

As was tried in 2011, ad hoc meetings of foreign ministers could empower envoys to make the peace and dispatch monitors to observe subsequent deals. Not every effort will succeed, but trying is better than doing nothing at all.

ASEAN’s 10 members need to be less risk-averse and ready to accept some failure as down payment on a harmonious region. The region is dotted with dormant conflicts, each with the potential to ignite the kind of tensions that can damage the solidarity needed to derive the dividends from grand visions such as economic integration.

Good global citizenship is to be encouraged, but when the next call comes for monitors from an ASEAN member, those who raise their hands to help should also come from within the neighborhood and not just from the other end of the globe.

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