Fragmented by geography, history, religion and language, the Southeast Asian region has sometimes been known as the “Balkans of Asia.” Colonial rule over the past four centuries encouraged divisions by linking these lands to Western powers with differing political and cultural systems. Only the Kingdom of Thailand retained its full independence and its predominantly Buddhist traditions.
As the nations of Southeast Asia became independent over the past 33 years, ancient and modern rivalries compounded the ethnic and political boundary disputes that were partly a product of World War II Japanese occupation. Lacking a consensus on the most effective path to modernization, some leaders lent themselves to outside political scheming. Lying athwart the strategic sea lanes from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and Mediterranean, Southeast Asia was tempting as an arena for Great Power maneuvering.
The ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS, known as ASEAN had its formal inauguration 12 years ago this month in Bangkok when the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines signed the declaration. The ASSOCIATION fosters economic cooperation for a region of some 245 million people who inhabit the mainland, the Malay peninsula and some 20,000 islands spread over more than three million square kilometers.
The performance of ASEAN since then has substantially exceeded the expectations of many, including skeptics both within and without the region. Shunning originally the controversial issues spawned by the conflict in the Indochinese states, ASEAN sought to emphasize constructive prospects. Special and ad-hoc committees representing member states have met and explored opportunities for collective action in transportation, communications, education, research and scientific development that promise common benefits.
Although Singapore is unique among the five neighboring countries in not having an immense underdeveloped rural hinterland, it has been possible for the ASEAN nations to agree upon specialization of production, emphasizing the advantages to each in locating industrial establishments to supply most effectively the larger regional market. An example is the soda ash industry to exploit the huge high quality rock salt deposits of northeastern Thailand.
ASEAN still has far to go in reducing regional barriers to trade, travel, and profitable industrialization, and in effectively controlling problems such as drug traffic and smuggling. However, a new vehicle for working together has been created wherein women’s groups, archaeologists, shipping executives, labor leaders, bankers and writers their growing mutuality of interests. Each ASEAN meeting of nongovernmental participants appears to generate increased enthusiasm.
So far neither a common market nor a regional economic community has been formed, but ASEAN is setting the pattern of productive and peaceful cooperation, creating a “Southeast Asian Sea of Tranquility.” ASEAN nations are rich in their resources of coconuts, copper, rubber, tin and timber, as well as in rice, maize, sugar and spices—for all of which they seek improved world earnings. Most importantly as an ASEAN founder expressed it: “For the first time now one of our foreign ministers can telephone another, take up a mutual problem and make an agreement in principle.”
In electing the ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS to receive the 1979 Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding, the Board of Trustees recognizes its supplanting national jealousies that led to confrontation, with increasingly effective cooperation, goodwill among the neighboring peoples of Southeast Asia.
It is a great privilege and honor for me today to be called upon to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award on behalf of the ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS. In doing so, allow me, therefore, to express on behalf of the member countries their deepest appreciation for the recognition which the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation is giving to ASEAN. We are also proud to share the honor of paying tribute to the late Ramon Magsaysay who, in the words of the Foundation, “worked to build a world in which freedom could be enjoyed by all, and man could live with man in honor and peace.” It is with the same objective that ASEAN was established in 1967. The member countries expressed their common desire to work together and promote regional cooperation for the welfare of their peoples. They declared that the countries of Southeast Asia share the primary responsibility for strengthening the economic and social stability of the region, which is essential for peace and freedom. The award that is bestowed on ASEAN today symbolizes not only recognition but also a testimony of the wise leadership of the member governments of ASEAN.
ASEAN has succeeded because we are able to give substance to its ideals and to adhere closely to the basic principles of equality and partnership. It is gratifying to hear from such a responsible body as the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation that ASEAN is on the right path in the never-ending quest for international understanding. The guiding principles of ASEAN in fulfilling its role in national, regional and world affairs were clearly defined by the ASEAN heads of government in Bali in 1976. The ASEAN countries recognize that their existing ties of history, geography and culture have bound the peoples of ASEAN together. They believe that peace and stability in the region can only be promoted through an abiding respect for justice and the rule of law, and that interstate relations should be conducted in the spirit of positive cooperation. ASEAN also believes that no progress and prosperity can be attained without its cooperation with all peace-loving nations, both within and outside Southeast Asia, in the maintenance of world peace, stability and harmony. ASEAN, therefore, owes its success to the collective efforts of its five Southeast Asian nations for having established a sound framework for economic growth, social progress and stability in the region.