Regional Forum’s Mission Still Incomplete Completed Accomplished

Ten years ago, Asean countries set up a meeting place to discuss security matters facing the Asia Pa­cific region. With the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War over, Asean was eager to play a leading role in security issues in its own region.

But so far, the regional forum has not risen to a level where it can solve conflicts, experts say.

The annual Asean Regional Forum so far has been very good at sweeping conflicts under the carpet, said Kwa Chong Guan, director of external relations at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. The forum has been managing rather than resolving conflicts, he said.

Kwa Chong Guan was part of a group of Asian and European experts who met in Phnom Penh this week to study the ARF’s accomplishments and ways to make the forum more effective.

Their recommendations will be sent to officials attending the ARF next month in Phnom Penh, said Kao Kim Hourn executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Co­ope­ration and Peace.

The two-day conference, which ended on Tuesday, was organized by the institute and the German foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

From the start, the ARF was meant to evolve from building trust among members so that they could discuss conflicts openly, to preventive diplomacy be­tween countries in conflict, and, eventually, to resolving conflicts.

The first goal has been accomplished, experts agreed. But pro­gress toward preventive diplomacy has been slow, they said.

The ARF makes decisions through consensus, with a general stance of  noninterference. While preventive diplomacy is still possible, it is difficult because the issues tend to be sensitive, said Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Nam­hong, the current ARF chairman.

But as he mentioned in the meeting’s keynote address, since the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the New York and Washing­ton, the very notion of security has changed, and in­volves more than tension among individual countries.

Security threats today include global terrorism, ocean piracy, trans­national crimes from drug and arms smuggling and human trafficking, and health emergencies such as SARS. This will call for an increasing number of agencies exchanging information through ARF side meetings, said Rodolfo Severino Jr, former secretary general of Asean who now advises the Cambodian government on Asean and ARF matters.

Topics at the conference in­cluded looking at how the ARF could benefit from the European Union’s experiences. That the EU could survive disagreement about the war in Iraq between its members showed the organization’s strength, said Winston McColgan, the European Com­mis­sion charge d’affaires.

With this in mind, ARF members should not hastily sacrifice their mutual trust to take on an expanded role so that they can openly talk when a crisis erupts, said Alfredo Robles Jr, of De La Salle Univer­sity in Manila. Still, all participants agreed that the ARF will have to be flexible to meet to­day’s new security threats.

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