As the two-day 20th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit concluded here Wednesday, the leaders took a crucial step toward bringing peace and stability to the region by agreeing to officially launch the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR) during Cambodia's ASEAN Chairmanship in 2012.
The decision was made after extensive discussions over the past couple of days on the modalities of its operationalization, which analysts say, will promote the building of the much-sought internal mediation mechanism.
The shortest plank of the bucket
Since its founding in 1967, the regional bloc has transformed from a mainly politicized camp to a significant and indispensable player in the global community with a clear and comprehensive vision.
Changing domestic reality and external environment prompted the ASEAN to accelerate the process of integration on the wave of rising globalization and regionalism. Since the late 1990s, especially after entering the new century, the ASEAN revved up community building with back-to-back agreements and documents covering a wide range of areas.
The Bali Concord II adopted in 2003, the ASEAN Charter which entered into force in 2008 and the Bali Concord III passed in 2011, among others, set ASEAN on an irreversible path of ever-deepening integration, which is welcomed by both the Asia-Pacific region and global society.
But the inconvenient truth is that regional disputes, particularly territorial disputes, do not fade away with enhanced regional connectivity. Instead, they could overshadow even stall the course of establishing an ASEAN Community by 2015, and put into question the bloc's credibility and ability to safeguard peace and stability in the region.
If the ASEAN could come up with ways to tackle territorial disputes like Cambodia-Thailand conflict over the Preah Vihear Temple last year, it will not only improve ASEAN's capacity to be an more integrated and mature community, but also elevate its status in the global arena, said Zheng Yongnian, director of the Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore. Currently, the deficit of internal mediation mechanism seems to be the shortest plank of the bucket that impedes the growth of ASEAN.
Change is afoot
Until now, ASEAN member states relied more on informal mechanisms such as self-restraint, practices of deliberations and consensus, third-party mediation and "agreeing to disagree" for later settlement.
When disputes arise, ASEAN states often resorted to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for arbitration. Indonesia and Malaysia, and Malaysia and Singapore used to seek ICJ's involvement in tackling their disagreements in the past.
ASEAN member countries are still very much reluctant to utilize the formal mechanism so far, which is the High Council as mandated in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC).
The reason is apparent: the concern over potential violations of the non-interference principle upheld by all ASEAN member states.
Any intervention in the form of mediation or other third-party involvement from any ASEAN member state is unlikely to be welcomed since there is always fear that the mediator will not be neutral.
This idea of an AIPR was first invoked in the ASEAN Political and Security Community Blueprint in 2010, which called for the consideration of the establishment of the AIPR.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said at the 19th ASEAN Summit in Bali that not all issues can be solved at the governmental level. Therefore, the institute will allow a process where any conflict can be responded to through non-state mechanisms. The institute will not involve a military element and limit participation of ASEAN members in institutions.
In terms of work, it is expected from the institute that the think-tanks would share their experiences based on best practices and lessons learned and issue recommendations in accordance with their respective countries' experience and characteristics.
Through these practices, the role of the AIPR would not be perceived as challenging the non-interference principle embraced by ASEAN. In fact, the mention of this idea in the ASEAN Political and Security Community (APSC) Blueprint has supported such an argument.
Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a noted Indonesian political scientist, said the establishment of the institute would definitely support endeavors to maintain the stability in the region.
"The academic-oriented institute would improve knowledge and provide training courses for experts in the region on how to manage peace and promote reconciliation in the region," she said.
Understanding theory on peace and reconciliation alone would not solve the problem, therefore practical and "direct-results" activities should be conducted, she said.
Fitri Bintang Timur, a researcher at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said that civil society must also be involved actively in maintaining regional peace and in confidence building.
Sok Touch, deputy director general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia's International Relations Institute voiced his misgiving about dispute settlement, noting "Every country is selfish when it comes to its own national interest... And to be a community, ASEAN must open up to each other, speak in one voice, which is unlikely. "
Cautious views are echoed by some local media as the geopolitically complex and diverse region is never short of discrepancies, squabbles and even conflicts. Countries may prefer bilateral closed-door negotiations to utilizing ASEAN channels. Thus sometimes mediation is a showcase of bonhomie at best.
However, Siphan Phay, spokesman for Cambodian secretary of state told Xinhua, bearing in mind the evolutionary process which has become a common practice in ASEAN and considering strict adherence to the non-interference principles, the move to establish a more research-oriented institution is something worth cheering.