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'Wise men' aim to bring peace to the region

Publication Date : 19-09-2012


The Nation editor-in-chief Suthichai Yoon, fourth left, hosts the Bangkok round-table discussion on the newly formed Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council.

Ex-regional leaders and well-connected figures gathered in Bangkok recently to announce plans to form a new peace mechanism for Asia. Here are excerpts from their round-table talks mediated by Nation editor-in-chief Suthichai Yoon.

Suthichai Yoon: We start with the chairman. What is the purpose of these leading "Asian wise men" gathering here in Bangkok?

Dr Surakiart Sathirathai, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Thailand: We think there are pockets of problems in Asia and there are experienced personalities in the business sector, government, people in high positions. The idea was that we should have an organisation, a council, where we can have wise men sitting together collectively, utilising their stature, experience, expertise in working towards peace and reconciliation in Asia. So we issued letters of invitation and they have been kind enough to meet during a very busy schedule. They have vast experience, are very resourceful and committed to work together for peace and reconciliation in Asia. This is unique because in Asia we don't yet have a non-state actor peace and reconciliation body. We have the Asean institute of peace and reconciliation, which we call "Track 1". Track 2 would be the NGOs, but they are not a single organisation that has the policymakers to be a good peace facilitator to promote peace dialogues. So this is unique in my view.

Suthichai Yoon: Is there an agreement today that a council will be set up?

Jose Manuel Ramos-Horta, former president of Timor-Leste: Yes, there is a commitment by all involved. For example, my government, president, prime minister and others are very positive and willing to support this independent entity. Over the past 12 years I was in government positions, and understand very well the many sides of the equation. I think this is a great initiative. My colleagues here are people with great experience, and they and myself can help this region address some very serious challenges. We talk all the time about rising Asia. Well, it can rise but it can also fall if we don't address some of the many challenging conflicts we face, understanding the limits of power, understanding the possibilities of power and of civil society.

Suthichai Yoon: There are so many conflicts in Asia, big and small. This is a very ambitious plan. But where do you start, to at least get the first step on the right track?

Tun Abdullah bin Haji Ahmad Badawi, former prime minister of Malaysia: I think we have started today. At the beginning I wasn't sure what exactly this was going to be. But finally I thought I would come and join, and the discussion was very interesting. Many views have been given and I think we are doing something good. Therefore there's no reason why I should bail out. This is an opportunity for me to make a contribution. In the future, we don't know what is going to happen. What is important is that we want to have this organisation, the APRC. If we can act together, then I think the force will be stronger and people will suddenly think, look, and will respond to what we say.

Shaukat Aziz, former prime minister of Pakistan: One of the key ingredients for any country or region like Asia to grow is a mechanism for sustaining and maintaining peace and reconciliation. So that is part of the enabling environment that allows growth in any society. Asia is a very attractive continent; the world has recognised it as such, and this initiative is a step in the right direction. All of us are here are individuals, global citizens, and we work by consensus. So whatever is done is by consensus and by consensus alone. Where do we start?

We are going to cross that bridge in the next few days and in the next month. But I think what is important is that peace is an ingredient for improving the quality of life. So we will, in our own humble way, contribute to this process of peace and development because we believe they go hand in hand. Asia has, like any part of the world, conflicts or potential conflicts. So this is about conflict avoidance, conflict resolution and, of course, reconciliation.

Tun Abdullah bin Haji Ahmad Badawi: Should it be proactive or reactive to any particular situation? I think it has to be a combination of both. The reality is, in a problem situation or risky situation, it is unlikely that we can sit idly by. Someone will knock on the door. More realistically, behind-the-scenes efforts have to be made. Here is a collection of individuals with experience, and we can provide good offices. Whether it's taken up or not, we don't know. I personally think we should be an inclusive group, because there could be a particular situation where we find an individual outside our group who may be best suited for a particular topic, so we should be prepared to invite that person to join our group on a regular basis, to deal with a particular request for good offices.

I think also there is agreement that the mark of our success depends on quiet diplomacy, because many of the issues are sensitive and have to be handled without the glare of publicity during the initial phase. It doesn't mean we should make our existence opaque, though.

Jose Manuel Ramos-Horta: Can this group play a role that really can save the purpose of peace and reconciliation? We have conflicts and tension at different levels. You have armed civil war, for example, in Syria. You have tension in other parts. You have countries that are going through the transformation of their political system.

So there are different areas of tension and conflict. I think that in the first place, we will not be able to serve armed conflicts, because the conflict is too heated up. But as long as it concerns the avoidance of stronger conflict, or transition of political systems in the direction of democracy and plurality, or moderation of conflicts that are not yet armed, I think we can offer expertise from a political background and from academia and business. What makes this group unique is that it is not a group that is committed to one side, as very often NGOs are. And we may not be as idealistic as some academics might often be.

Dr Alfred Gusenbauer, former chancellor of Austria: This group is not limited by the constraints of governmental responsibility, but all of the people here have experience in different sectors. We try to take the best out of these worlds in order to create something new. I think this could be of good service to development in Asia, which in general is very positive, especially in economic terms. If one can add to it great political stability, which means avoiding conflicts, I think we can see a positive future.

Professor David Kennedy, Harvard Law School: I know that as a group we will benefit from colleagueship and mutual experience and act as platform provider. Let's put it in the context of Asia. There is no question that this is a moment of incredible geopolitical transformation. This is a moment in which we find private initiatives taking over the processes of political change, development and management in a variety of areas. It is not just government, but also the private sector. It also means involving businesses, financial elements and economic interests. They all need to be brought to the table.

Suthichai Yoon: Are there any areas of conflict where the group says, yes this is what we should tackle?

Dr Gusenbauer: First of all, the group has to be able to announce that this is the first conflict where we are going in, because we have agreed that we are acting in consensus with those involved.

Shaukat Aziz: Any group like this has to have a process. How we will share ideas? How the whole philosophy of the group will be a consensus? And how we tackle problems without personal likes or dislikes? I think that alone is a major step forward and I think the majority of the group will allow us to agree to this fairly quickly. Then I guess the next stage will be which issue, where and how. We will deliberate again. I think the biggest contribution everybody is making here is in time and sincerity and a sense of purpose, which are all very important in any initiative like the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council.

Suthichai Yoon: I noticed that you have not invited any former politician from the United States for this forum. Is there any particular reason why?

Dr Surakiart: No, there is no reason at all. There were so many people we could have invited. That's why we say it's not exclusive. We may invite four people to join the council on a permanent basis, although they are not founding members, but at the same time, if we make decision to work on any particular conflict or case, we may have to invite additional people who have more expertise and more experience on that particular conflict. Sometimes we will have a conflict between A and B and they have talked to each other 15 times and negotiations or dialogue failed, and they feel they cannot talk to each other anymore. So there is now an opportunity for a third party to create a comfort level for both parties. Let them come in. It could be other people like the president of Chile or Poland to sign into our group. When we get consensus from parties to a conflict that yes, the APRC would be helpful, then we will start doing the job and it won't be just us doing it.

Suthichai Yoon: Are you going to volunteer or wait to be asked to mediate in a particular conflict?

Tun Abdullah bin Haji Ahmad Badawi: I think both. It depends on the case. We cannot force anyone and say we want to do it. That's not the way. What's important is that there's collective support.

Suthichai Yoon: Is there any similar set up in the world like this, a non-state body for peace and reconciliation?

Professor Kennedy: Well, there are a number of groups of senior statesmen from different countries. A variety of them, and they play interesting roles in a number of different conflicts. Sometimes they do so successfully. There are, of course, individuals who are playing a role representing the UN in Syria, or whatever. There are also groups that specialise in peace and conflict resolution who provide study and research, who can help understand exactly who the parties are and what's going on. And I think we hope to partner with some of those university entities and think-tank entities that provide that kind of work. And then there are groups that specialise in reconciliation processes.

Suthichai Yoon: So how will this group be different from all the groups that you have mentioned?

Professor Kennedy: I think the focus is on Asia. This is something relatively new for Asia, to have some kind of pan-Asian group that sees its mandate to be more broader than Asean encompasses.

Suthichai Yoon: Will this setup be on a permanent basis or is it going to be in a shuttle diplomacy format? Will the permanent secretariat hold regular meetings or is it just on an ad hoc basis?

Dr Surakiart: It is permanent. The Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council is now established. As a council, we have been discussing the value of the secretariat, and there has been a suggestion around the table that perhaps it should be in Thailand.

Suthichai Yoon: You're all here in a personal capacity. In the case that countries are involved, how will you handle that?

Professor Shunmugam Jayakumar, former deputy PM and former foreign minister of Singapore: We must be open-minded, and we hope the objective of this is to have peace and conciliation. In such a situation, one must be receptive to the good officer's role.

Suthichai Yoon: You are not linked to governments. Do you see the APRC as an NGO or not?

Dr Surakiart: I think the vocabulary is to call our group a "non-state actor."

Suthichai Yoon: What will the relationship of this group be with the UN, for example, or the Asean Secretariat?

Professor Kennedy: Cooperative. This is a group that aims to add value where we can, without deprecating or contradicting the good efforts of any other group or government to make a contribution to the issues where we would choose to be involved.

Dr Gusenbauer: I think you would fail if you tried to put this organisation in a very specific box. I think it's a unique organisation. So you will have difficulty to find analogies with others because, as we've already described, we will try to pick the best of the different existing roles and to merge those into a unique organisation that can be of good service.

Tun Abdullah bin Haji Ahmad Badawi: I like that Dr Surakiart has decided to get young people, university students, involved. Young people are in NGOs all over the world, and in demonstrations, where they try to get their voices heard.

Professor Jayakumar: When I arrived in Bangkok, I read an article in a local newspaper which posed the question, "How come we need this organisation when Asean in November is going to launch the Asean Institute of Peace and Reconciliation. So, I completely agree with Dr Surakiart and Dr Kennedy that this approach must be supportive and compliment any other existing or proposed initiative. I think there's no limit to the number of initiatives and preventive diplomatic efforts designed to reduce tensions.

Suthichai Yoon: Funding will be an issue, because you don't want to go into an issue being funded by one side or the other. How do you make sure the peacemakers are independent?

Dr Gusenbauer: I think this is a very important question, and we had a lengthy discussion on that. First of all, we will not accept any funding by partners to a conflict. And we will make a selective choice as to who will be able to fund which initiative. Sometimes there will be a government that is not involved in dispute that might be ready to contribute. In our instance, it will be institutions, organisations or private business. We do not fundamentally reject any one of them. But we will check on a case by case basis, and this is why we agreed that we will form a small committee that will try to develop a judgement on each individual potential donor to the organisation in order to stay entirely independent.

Shaukat Aziz: I'd like to reinforce what you've said. Independence in what we do and the neutrality of what we do is a key, as well as transparency. So these are the three attributes we will focus on. Funding is not a high-budget exercise. But we devote ourselves to volunteer. But funding will be required of course to maintain the infrastructure, which is quite limited.

Suchichai Yoon: Would UN funds be acceptable? If the UN sees that this group is a good idea and says we have the budget, we will give this much money to you every year, do you take that?

Dr Gusenbauer: This would be an idea that we would study. But I have not been in any situation where the UN would be in a position to offer funds. Most of the time, it's the other way around.

Suthichai Yoon: As a Thai citizen, we know that the chairman, Dr Surakiart, would not want to raise this question. But would you consider helping Thailand resolve at least two major conflicts - one being the red and yellow conflict, and the problem in the South. Would this group one of these as a first topic on the agenda?

Professor Kennedy: Some of us have already been involved. I'm very proud of being asked a year ago to serve as a foreign adviser to the Thai Truth for Reconciliation Commission. I think the Thai conflict, in my personal capacity, is one which could be very well served by friends of Thailand to assist in the process of reconciliation. I would hope that all people who care about reconciliation in the country would want to be involved. And I would hope that we would find openness across the board in Thai society, to working with and listen to. Teamwork can be a very important process in this reconciliation. It is a wonderful and lovely place, and for those of us who've long been friends with Thailand it's been very sad to see the conflict divide society in recent years. I speak for myself but I think for the whole group also when I say we all wish Thailand the very best in reaching reconciliation.

Suthichai Yoon: Would the APRC take up the issue of Thailand?

Dr Gusenbauer: I think first, one should accept that of course we care about Thailand. Second, you should not get the impression that we have already taken the decision that the ongoing conflict should be our priority. The third thing, I think, is that one should not misinterpret the fact that the secretariat will be located here in Bangkok, that it will be a decision primarily to deal with conflict in Thailand. The decision on which conflicts we're going to be involved with ourselves has not been taken. We've already explained we're at different parameters. But we also want to say that it is not entirely excluded, that if we're asked to help, that we're ready to do so.


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