ASEAN: Were we blocked or did we decline?
This handout photo received 10 August, 2007 from Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows representatives lined up for a photo during the very first meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bangkok in August, 1967.
It will be two years today since the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Much will surely be written in the media these days about him and the foul deed that robbed the country of one who entered the world of politics, perhaps reluctantly at first, and paid for it with his life.
Lakshman Kadirgamar will be remembered, among other things, for trying to create a professional diplomatic service and rescuing the foreign ministry from the depths to which it was slowly sinking.
Though I did not always agree with him on matters of emphasis and especially the lack of professional competence in some of our missions in dealing with public affairs, Kadirgamar set a tone and standards of excellence which unfortunately have been abandoned by the current administration and those who direct (or misdirect) our relations with the outside world.
In his desire to bring an intellectual content to our diplomacy and instil in the younger generation of career diplomats the notion of ‘thinking diplomats’ rather than a foreign service that merely performed its ‘duties’, Kadirgamar established an institute to provide the environment for research and study in the necessary disciplines.
If that institute has not already been turned into rubble, intellectually more than physically, here is a task I hope it will undertake at least in the memory of its founder if not for the edification of those who guide our foreign affairs today.
It concerns an issue that goes back 40 years to the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It was resurrected the other day in the pages of a Thai English daily as the grouping now consisting of 10 members celebrates four decades of its existence.
“The Nation”, quoting a former Thai diplomat, Sompong Sucharitkul who was closely associated with the founding of ASEAN, claimed that the entry of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to the regional grouping was blocked by Singapore’s Foreign Minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam.
That implies that Ceylon, then led by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was keen, or at least interested, in joining ASEAN.
My recollection of the thinking of our political leaders at the time is rather different. My memory was jogged when reading the comments made by the Thai diplomat who was a close aide of the Thai foreign minister of the day Thanat Khoman.
I remember this particularly well because I had spoken to Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake about it after his return from Malaysia. I think it was somewhere in the early part of 1967, before ASEAN was formally founded in August of that year.
Dudley, as he was called even by those who did not know him (not to his face of course, but he would not have minded) had visited Malaysia at the invitation of the then prime minister, the respected Tunku Abdul Rahman.
During the visit there were media reports that the Tunku had invited Ceylon to become a member of the regional grouping that was being planned. It was to be called the South East Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SEAARC).
Some time after Dudley Senanayake returned to Colombo he held a press conference at his Senate Building office.
I cannot quite recall whether it was on his Malaysian visit or was a general press conference. But I remember asking the prime minister about the news item that said Ceylon had been invited by the Tunku to join the regional grouping which was then to consist of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
Now this I remember distinctly. In replying to my question Dudley Senanayake said that Ceylon must think about it and see whether it would be in our interests to join it.
That was the time when Dudley Senanayake took a great interest in agriculture and food production and would tour all parts of the country meeting government officials, farmers and people of the area to discuss their problems.
I was assigned to cover these visits because of my own interest in agriculture/ irrigation etc. One of those who encouraged me in many ways was the then editor of the Daily News, Ernest Corea who had the vision to see early enough the key role of the media in promoting development.
During one of those visits I remember asking Dudley Senanayake why he did not accept the Tunku’s invitation to join as a founder-member. Though wary of communism and more inclined to western liberal thinking, he was concerned that ASEAN might be another name for an anti-communist bloc.
If ASEAN was essentially an economic grouping that promoted regional co-operation among member states, I think Dudley Senanayake would have had no hesitation in going along with Tunku Abdul Rahman’s idea of including Ceylon.
But he suspected that the emerging grouping had political connotations which would compromise Ceylon’s “neutrality”.
By this time we were very much in the non-aligned movement in which his predecessor in office Sirima Bandaranaike had played such a prominent role.
Earlier during her husband’s time Ceylon had rid itself of the British bases.
In keeping with non-aligned policy we could not allow foreign bases on our soil or join a grouping whose members were part of a foreign military bloc.
The US inspired South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) was a military bloc and two of ASEAN’s founder members – Thailand and the Philippines – were members of it.
Moreover, there was no indication that ASEAN’s member states that had foreign bases on their soil were ready to rid themselves of them soon. In fact the Bangkok Declaration that became the Asean Charter said at the end of its preamble: “Affirming that all foreign bases are temporary and remain only with the express concurrence of the countries concerned and are not intended to be used directly or indirectly to subvert the national independence and freedom of State in the area or prejudice and orderly processes of their national development”.
There were no indications that any of the members were in any hurry to dismantle the foreign bases or order foreign troops out.
Dudley Senanayake was wary about stepping into what he probably saw as a veritable minefield. Besides domestic political pressure from the Left if Asean was perceived as a Western-inspired anti-Communist alliance and from the SLFP as compromising the country’s non-aligned policy, he did not also want to antagonise China with whom the UNP had cordial relations. Except for that one unhappy incident when the government stopped a big consignment of badges of chairman Mao being brought into the country.
In Beijing, Chinese demonstrated outside our embassy for a couple of days denouncing us as western stooges, an incident which Jayantha Dhanapala might remember as I think he was serving at our embassy at the time.
Thai diplomat Sompong reportedly said that Rajaratnam not only blocked our entry but also that two of our ministers were waiting in the wings of the Bangkok venue to be invited to join the meeting.
I doubt Dudley Senanayake would have sent two of his ministers if in fact he had serious doubts about the aim and intentions of Asean at the time.
My understanding of Dudley Senanayake’s thinking on this is borne out by two sources I came across while reading about Asean’s progress in 40 years. One was Prof. Amivat Acharya of the Nanyang Technical Institute in Singapore who said: “Asean quickly expanded its membership to include the 10 countries that the regional elites insisted were always meant to be part of Southeast Asia (thereby conveniently ignoring the fact that Sri Lanka had been invited to join as a founder-member of Asean, an invitation it had declined, much to its regret.”
The other is the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation which it writing about Asean said “Ceylon (Sri Lanka) apparently considered joining but never applied for membership.”
Much later Prime Minister Premadasa while on a visit to the Philippines did express the intention of joining Asean but I don’t believe the JR Jayewardene government ever followed that up.
Rajaratnam might have wanted to block us. But then I don’t think we had got that far.
It is now for the Kadirgamar Institute or some other research body to undertake the task of clearing the air on it because it is of historical importance. At least it will provide the public with some diversion from the current problems.