A mute secretary-general undermines ASEAN centrality

The writer says Asean secretary-general Lim Jock Hoi's refrain from saying anything substantive on the Ukraine-Russian conflict is unacceptable.

Phar Kim Beng

Phar Kim Beng

The Jakarta Post


ASEAN secretary-general Lim Jock Hoi (left) greets Indonesian President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo during the ASEAN leaders' summit at the bloc's secretariat building in Jakarta on April 24, 2021. (Handout/Muchlis Jr/Indonesian Presidential Palace via REUTERS)

October 21, 2022

JAKARTA – ASEAN has just weeks to go to relay the message that it is important to stop the war in Ukraine, before the Group of 20 Summit is held in Bali from Nov. 14 to 16. With ASEAN against all forms of territorial aggression, not to mention annexation, the fact that ASEAN secretary-general Lim Jock Hoi, who has ministerial standing, refrains from saying anything substantive on the Ukraine-Russian conflict is unacceptable.

Even China has spoken of the need to end the war. As did all other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which include the United Kingdom, France and the United States.

The fact that UK Prime Minister Liz Truss, whose premiership is about to come to an abrupt end, has spoken out against the war, while the ASEAN secretary-general, who has only two months left in his five-year tenure, does not know how to take a stance on behalf of ASEAN is mind-boggling.

First and foremost, this pattern of willful ignorance in speaking on this issue was clear even from the secretary-general’s visit to the US barely two months ago, to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the US-ASEAN relationship.

During his visit to the offices of the Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, he was given the platform to make a speech. At a time when the pandemic is indeed endemic, a thoughtful secretary-general of ASEAN should have asked the world to be more prudent and thoughtful in understanding that this is a virus that can have various “breakthrough variants”.

But beyond this key advice, the issue of another top priority is stopping a member state of the UN from issuing a series of nuclear threats against Ukraine. This is an abominable act that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres himself criticized widely and instantly.

The ASEAN secretary-general’s dismal performance can be watched on YouTube, and he should know that he is underperforming because ASEAN was founded on preventing the use of force as a crucible of foreign policy, be it from member states, comprehensive strategic partners, dialogue partners, development partners or sectoral partners of ASEAN.

Why? The reason is simple. The first ASEAN Summit in Bali in 1976 resulted in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). Before joining and becoming an external partner to ASEAN, a director of external relations of the ASEAN Secretariat must advise the ASEAN secretary-general on key conditions:

“Sir, ASEAN has not accepted territorial aggression, annexation or occupation of another country or even entity since 1967 and further emphasizes that in 1967, the crowning achievement of ASEAN was to allow the late Indonesian foreign minister Pak Ali Alatas work closely with former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans to condemn and eventually to successfully push out Vietnam from Cambodia in 1979. All this was done with careful coordination with China, the US and other great powers too, implicitly the Soviet Union as well during the Cold War”.

ASEAN is an observer of the G20. Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia will be in Bali on the above dates to attend the G20 Summit. Whether the ASEAN secretary-general is there at the G20 Summit or not is moot. The director of external relations, who has always been known to be a “fly in the wall” at the ASEAN Secretariat, should at the very least explain to the press “this war must end”.

Even the editors of The Straits Times and The Jakarta Post agree, through their respective publications, that “This war must [indeed] stop”.

One can be forgiving about the age of the ASEAN secretary-general. He was, after all, the oldest secretary-general to be nominated and accepted by the member states of ASEAN when he assumed office five years ago.

But with age comes awareness and wisdom of the history of ASEAN’s creation, evolution and institutionalization in the form of the ASEAN Charter of 2007, which came into force in 2008.

Russia is a member of the East Asian Summit (EAS) which is held back-to-back with the year-end ASEAN Summit. The EAS, established in 2005, requires all other members who wish to be a part of the ASEAN dialogue process be a signatories of the TAC.

Such coexistence among the ASEAN member states and partners enables even the likes of current member state Myanmar to be a member of ASEAN. Yet, the country has violated democratic processes at home. This is why Myanmar’s attendance at various virtual ASEAN foreign ministerial meetings has been suspended since September 2022.

What is the ASEAN secretary-general and the director of external relations waiting for? The laws are clear: They do have the mandate and moral duty to speak up. The fact that the ASEAN secretary-general is mute, makes other ASEAN member states, including Brunei, look meek.

These officials must not be dumb, mute and blind to some of the most egregious acts in world politics since 1945. Wake up and smell the blood spilled on the black soil of Ukraine.

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