Column: ‘Asean massage parlor’

Published on January 22, 2008

BANGKOK — Surin Pitsuwan, the new ASEAN secretary-general, is an academic and a diplomat, but it may be for his skills as a politician that he was chosen to lead the regional grouping’s permanent secretariat. The Ph.D. from Harvard and former foreign minister of Thailand was elected to parliament nine times in the last 20-odd years. Now, as ASEAN’s fourth secretary-general, he has the opportunity to lead the association into a new era of community-building.

First things first. “They would like a stronger secretariat,” he said at a journalists’ forum in Bangkok on Sunday. He was referring to ASEAN’s 10 heads of government, and their expansive idea of his job description. It is true, he said, that he is the first politician to assume the Jakarta-based post.

“What would be the difference in the running of that nerve center [in Jakarta]?” He answered his own question: “I will do what politicians do best: energize, create a sense of belonging.” And promote a sense of the possible.

He drew a vivid picture of what he said will become “a network secretariat” during his term, “reaching out, roping in and working with” anyone who understands the role ASEAN can play in Asia.

But while Surin talks a good game (he is quite eloquent when it comes to vision-setting), the reality is that much of the agenda he will face in his five-year term (it ends in 2012) has already been set.

Case in point: His first official trip as secretary-general was a ministerial meeting in Naypyidaw, the capital-in-the-making of Burma (Myanmar). Despite all the talk of community-building, brutal, repressive Burma remains ASEAN’s odd man out. One truth of politics: There is a limit to everything, even constructive engagement.

* * *

On Burma, Surin waxes and wanes. He is optimistic that, with ASEAN in its current state of evolution, “there is a very, very strong spirit of democracy in the system already.” He is sanguine about the prospects of a consolidating ASEAN, through the use of the proposed Charter (a document which Singapore has signed, but which the Philippines has threatened to reject, because of Aung San Suu Kyi’s continuing detention). He even offers a timetable for greater consolidation. “We want to do it by 2015, seven years from now.”

At the same time, he is realistic about the difficulty ASEAN finds itself in. “We ran into a stalemate,” he said, referring to the ultimately failed efforts to avert and then to mitigate Burma’s violent crackdown on protest actions late last year.

He spoke of a recent meeting with the Sultan of Brunei, where the Burma problem was discussed and his proposals were sought. His reply: “Your Majesty, I don’t know my role in this issue.”

“I’m still trying to find out my space,” he told the journalists gathered in Bangkok. “Is the secretary-general expected to play that role [of engaging Burma]?”

Ever the politician, he makes or rather suggests a prediction about the eventual resolution of ASEAN’s Burma problem: “I think it will come [down] to [the use of] regional mechanisms.”

* * *

A sense of humor is one of Surin’s winning points. He spoke about how, after he was appointed secretary-general, he became more conscious of everything ASEAN. Once, somewhere in Pattaya, he saw a sign that began with “ASEAN.” Back up, he told his driver. I want to know what the sign says. Well, he certainly found out. The sign read: “ASEAN massage parlor.”

A victory for consolidation.

* * *

The decision of the Presidential Electoral Tribunal to terminate the election protest of Sen. Loren Legarda against Vice President Noli de Castro was not unexpected — expect perhaps for the part about her failure to provide adequate proof of election fraud.

I happen to think that if the elections in 2004 had been held a week later, Legarda would have won the vice presidency outright. My reading is based in part on the trending we saw in the pre-election surveys — the same argument Malacañang used to deploy, to defend the legitimacy of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s election. (Used to, now that the surveys show the President plumbing new depths in unpopularity.)

To be sure, both the senator and her election lawyer, Sixto Brillantes, question the conclusion about the inadequacy of evidence, if not the dismissal of the case itself. Brillantes told reporters Legarda was able to show a “pattern of fraud,” and may yet file a motion for reconsideration “on that aspect, not on the dismissal per se.”

But the dismissal became a foregone conclusion last May, when Legarda was returned to the Senate after three years in the political wilderness.

The inner cynic in us may view Legarda’s protest as the extension of politics by other means, but in truth it is a necessary if costly investment in our admittedly rickety electoral system. De Castro, otherwise a genial man, ungallantly hailed the dismissal as a “triumph of truth.” In truth, it was a triumph of the process — not a bad thing, actually, when we consider that the challenges of democracy-building include the strengthening of political institutions.

* * *

Last week, the Society of Jesus elected Adolfo Nicolas to succeed Peter-Hans Kolvenbach as superior-general. Father Nicolas is not an unknown quantity to a number of Filipinos. He served as director of the East Asian Pastoral Institute, based inside the Ateneo de Manila University campus in Loyola Heights, in Quezon City, from 1978 to 1984. That should mean he has a better-than-average idea of what the Philippine Jesuits are faced with, and what they are capable of.

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