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November 30, 2000

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Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 22, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 42

'We Have Earned Respect'
Thailand's Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan on East Timor, ASEAN and Thailand's place in world affairs

"For the first time in a long while, other nations are asking, 'What is Thailand's position?'"
Yvan Cohen for Asiaweek
Surin Pitsuwan, 50 next week, became Thailand's foreign minister two years ago. His visionary notions - like suggesting ASEAN members should review their principle of non-interference in one another's affairs - don't always sit well with the neighbors. "He should draw in his horns a little bit," said Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Surin is now in the hot seat again over Thailand's commitment to send ground troops to East Timor and its handling of a recent hostage drama in Bangkok's Myanmar embassy. Excerpts from an interview with Senior Correspondent Roger Mitton:

Why is Thailand sending troops to East Timor?
East Timor may be small, but it has a tremendous implication for the region. It's right in our midst. If the problem is allowed to fester, it will give an impression of insecurity and lack of collective responsibility. The prime minister considered it was a good opportunity for countries in the region to show our responsibility. But he made it clear that for any Thai involvement, two conditions must be fulfilled. One is a clear, precise and unanimous decision by the United Nations Security Council, and the other is that it has to be at the request of Indonesia. That direct request came from Habibie, came from Wiranto. In fact, Ginandjar met Chuan and made a direct personal request that he would like to see from each of the ASEAN countries one battalion. I think Thailand has made the right decision. And the regional collective response has given the international effort a more credible and effective way of handling the problem. We have been able to cover sharp edges of the issue by participating.

Indonesia is happy with your involvement?
Habibie said he was very much pleased, very grateful. He said: I owe it to Mr Chuan and you for coming in to talk about this issue -- possible cooperation, right after he made the request. So far all the signs have been quite supportive of our participation. But it's interesting that there is this media effort to present the view that is potentially disturbing, that Indonesia does not appreciate, that it could be considered as interference -- what can I do? Good news is not news.

Thailand: A Siege - of Sorts
Behind the drama at Myanmar's embassy (10/15/99)

But some ASEAN members are against participating.
They have their own feelings. Those who are ready, willing and capable have responded -- again at varying degrees, because each of us is different. Thai military personnel have not had that much experience in international peacekeeping so the prime minister considers this is a good opportunity for them to learn how to cooperate with the armed forces from other countries in this kind of special mission. It's not something that came out of the blue. It's something that has been part of our thinking that Thai personnel should be given this kind of opportunity. And they are ready and eager to participate.

There may be a backlash if there are casualties.
Engagement of this sort involves some degree of risk. You are not asked to go out if the situation is perfectly safe. It is an atmosphere of tension, conflict, mutual distrust. It would be rather selfish to say: OK, the Thais will go, but it's got to be 100% proof that there won't be any conflict.

But the fact is ASEAN is divided over the issue.
It's not a surprise to me. ASEAN is not an organization that is based on consensus and resolution. We have different systems in our political structure, economic structure, cultures, values. We cannot expect the ten member countries to respond in the same way. It would be nice if every ASEAN country could help, could participate, could contribute, but it's understandable that some will not be able to or did not want to.

Are you happy with Australia's leadship of Interfet?
You have to face the realities. Australia has been most prepared, most willing and most equipped to take this leadership role. None of the other countries in southeast Asia was prepared to do it. Of course, there is some concern over the involvement of Australia. Our participation from the region was aimed at making that leadership role of Australia less objectionable -- because we are in it together, and if you can't do it yourself, then you have to go with the second best.

Are there differences between Interfet's Australian commander and the Thai deputy commander?
I think there are. In any joint co-operation, you will have these kinds of problems. If there was no problem at all, no tension, I think it would be quite strange. But it's working quite well. They have been coordinating.

“Certainly Australia has a contribution to make to the region. But how much, when, and what manner, with what style, that will have to be decided by the countries in the region.”
Do you agree with 'hot pursuit' into West Timor?
We have to be extremely sensitive of the host country, Indonesia. East Timor is East Timor. West Timor is entirely another story. If there are problems that would need cooperation, you will have to work around the issue of the state's sovereignty. You have to respect it. If there are sorties from East Timor who go back into West Timor, we will have to work with the Indonesian authorities. We don't cross a border unless given a clear indication that it's allowable. In this case, I don't think it's possible. The multinational force, including Australia, will have to understand the situation.

What do you think of the so-called 'Howard doctrine' of Australia taking a more proactive role in the region?
In terms of security, stability, economic prosperity, certainly Australia has a contribution to make to the region. But how much, when, and what manner, with what style, that will have to be decided by the countries in the region. It cannot be unilateral. In cannot be one-sided. It cannot be perceived as imposing or provocative. It has to be mutually accepted and perceived as mutually beneficial. I think what Howard was trying to say was that Australia is ready and this is one case where Australia wants to make a contribution.

Many worry about East Timor setting a precedent for Aceh and other regions with secessionist ideas?
If the situation is allowed to fester and boil on, that could have some negative repercussions -- not in any specific province. But the entire area would be under tremendous pressure and the perception of instability, lack of security, lack of appropriate collective action to some of these problems certainly would have negative implications. And if that is the case, everybody loses. It depends on how you put it. Some may say okay it's a bad precedent for the future. Some may it's bad for us now. Some may say that it opens our region for outside interference. It's up to their emphasis.

Turning to Myanmar, your interior minister said the gunmen who occupied the embassy in Bangkok were student activists fighting for democracy, not terrorists. Do you agree?
His statement was made in the context of the negotiation. In that dangerous and pressure-cooker situation, you want to avoid any issue of irritation. It was a conciliatory statement in order to secure the safety of the hostages, including Myanmar staff. But the act certainly was a terrorist act.

“ASEAN has to be flexible. Don't expect every country to go along on every issue that every other country, or even one country, is doing. That's not realistic.”
Your Australian counterpart Alexander Downer suggests a more creative approach to Myanmar, like the recent move to explore setting up a human rights commission. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi says this is 'misguided.' What is your view?
Any sincere effort to help should be welcomed. All of us have a common interest in seeing the standstill moving in a more relaxed manner, because the continuation of tension creates problems in the region -- as the embassy siege showed. I think the Australian approach is contributing to the collective effort to encourage this process in Myanmar and so I think it is worth exploring. The fact that Australia took the initiative of sending its human rights commissioner into Rangoon to talk about the idea already represents a step forward. Five, six years ago, I wouldn't think this was possible. At least the [Myanmar government's] willingness to talk about the idea is a beginning. I am an incremental person. I don't expect things to be resolved 100% immediately on any issue.

Why did you not visit Suu Kyi when you went to Myanmar in August?
Because there is an established tradition. When the foreign minister of an ASEAN country accompanies the prime minister on a visit then he or she will be given a chance. In my case, I was there for bilateral discussions with my counterpart; I was not with the prime minister. After all, I have [bilateral] relations to manage. But I think I have enough credibility for my democratic commitment for you not to question my lack of interest in the issue.

Some feel you are impetuous; regarding your idea of reconsidering ASEAN's non-interference principle, Lee Kuan Yew said you should draw in your horns a little bit.
My reaction is that at least he takes note of it. I have made my proposal and I think recent events have shown that I was not too far ahead of my time. Anything new, anything different, will be faced with some degree of suspicion; but I don't think anybody would question my sincerity. My analysis has always been that things have changed. We have lost our traditional leadership in ASEAN. Each individual member is different. If each of us has some initiative, we should be able to pursue it, rather than being told: 'Look you can't do that, you can't take the initiative, because you need a consensus.' I think that would deny members their own potential for growing, for making networks and connections. We have to be flexible, don't expect every country to go along on every issue that every other country, or even one country, is doing. That's not realistic. We'd be suffocating.

The local media is very critical of you, even on East Timor.
It's natural. I am resigned to that fate because it's damned if you do, damned if you don't. Before the government decided on this issue, I was being ridiculed for not doing anything. When the time came, I had to make a decision. I went to Jakarta, came out, a call from Australia came, a call from the UN came. A decision was made. Then the government was accused of doing too much, committing too soon. If you do too little you are criticized, too much criticized. Too early criticized, too late criticized. It's not based on objectivity. This is a country with a free press. What we like to see is an objective criticism based on truth, rather than on personal sentiment or prejudice against the government or a particular person in the government. Take the issue of the Myanmar embassy siege. If one life was lost, if violence was used, property damaged, there would have been a lot of criticism -- and you know who would be supporting the critics? It would be the Thai media. I am only asking for balance and objectivity.

Despite the media carping, after two years as foreign minister, do you still enjoy the job?
Well, I have broken two records: attending ASEAN foreign ministry meetings twice, and attending the UN general assembly twice. We are able to present the same face in the international arena and we are gaining a recognition that there is a sustainability in Thai foreign policy. And I think I have made contributions that have been useful. I still enjoy it, yes. I think for the first time for a long time people in the international community ask: 'What's Thailand's position on this or that issue?' They were not interested in the Thai position for a long time.

You'd like Thailand to have a higher profile in foreign affairs?
Certainly. We have a contribution to make. What we are doing is trying to achieve economic prosperity along with political openness. Trying to balance the two. I think it has been quite successful and we have earned a higher level of respect for what we are doing. Take the issue the WTO. From the very beginning, running a candidate for the new WTO director-general was part of the strategy to build up confidence for ourselves. Look, in the midst of the Crisis we are willing to send one our best servants out there to take part in the setting up of rules and regulations for a most important international problem -- trading. You think this is only a one-way contribution to the international community? I don't think so. I think it has positive repercussions. Not in a way that the international trading system will favour Thailand. I mean that's unrealistic. But at least we will have our own ideas, our own concerns, to make into the process of the discussion.

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