IT must have been one of those early August nights 50 years back at a beach resort in Bang Saen, southeast of Bangkok, over the light-hearted banter that came with what was described as the “sports-shirt diplomacy” of serious figures – Foreign Ministers all, from Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – that a meeting of the minds was finally arrived at: On August 8, 1967, the Bangkok Declaration, the founding document of the then-five member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), was signed. An emergent power bloc was born.
In the years that followed, Brunei Darussalam, in 1984; Vietnam, in 1985; Laos and Myanmar, in 1997; and Cambodia, in 1999; subsequently joined, bringing Asean membership to 10 countries at present.
Forming Asean certainly wasn’t easy
Previous attempts at regional cooperation had fallen short. The Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), founded by the then-Federation of Malaya (now a part of Malaysia), the Philippines and Thailand in 1961, was doomed by the disagreement over Sabah. The larger Asian and Pacific Council (ASPAC), entered into by Australia, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, South Vietnam and New Zealand in 1966, similarly collapsed over conflict involving Taiwan and China.
Still Southeast Asia had to come together, for objectives its founders expressed in the Bangkok Declaration:
• To accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region through joint endeavors in the spirit of equality and partnership in order to strengthen the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of South-East Asian Nations;
• To promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries of the region and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter;
• To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest in the economic, social, cultural, technical, scientific and administrative fields;
• To provide assistance to each other in the form of training and research facilities in the educational, professional, technical and administrative spheres;
• To collaborate more effectively for the greater utilization of their agriculture and industries, the expansion of their trade, including the study of the problems of international commodity trade, the improvement of their transportation and communications facilities and the raising of the living standards of their peoples;
• To promote South-East Asian studies;
• To maintain close and beneficial cooperation with existing international and regional organizations with similar aims and purposes, and explore all avenues for even closer cooperation among themselves.
According to then Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman, a signatory to the Bangkok Declaration, “the formation of Asean… was actually inspired and guided by past events.”