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Spirit of Sport – Shirt Diplomacy and ASEAN integration

By Srimal Fernando, Global Editor, and Chaminda Padmakumara
 
South East Asia is a strategically important region on the global map and is home to almost 625 million people. Determined to deepen regional integration in Southeast Asia the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was set up on 8 August 1967. Presently, there are ten member countries in ASEAN namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Lao PDR (People's Democratic Republic), Myanmar and Cambodia.  Although it has been decades since the creation of ASEAN it is important to re-look at the informal as well as formal cooperation manifested in  establishing this South-east Asian regional grouping through the efforts of Sport – Shirt diplomacy.  

Photo: ASEAN Heads of States at the opening ceremony of the 26th ASEAN Summit, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - 27 April 2015

Diplomacy is often viewed as a prescribed way of interactions due to its formal affiliations. Inevitably, it is a culture of protocols that formalize the relations among nations. In other ways, it convinces the international community to seek friendly engagements under various pre-determined environments. On the eve of the establishment of ASEAN, foreign delegates from five nations; Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand met each other at Bang Saen seaside resort in Bangkok prior to their official engagements.

In August 1967 an informal meeting paved a path for Adam Malik of Indonesia, Narciso R. Ramos of Philippines, Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia, S. Rajaratnam of Singapore, and Thanat Khoman of Thailand for more friendly engagements. That was a few days of good humor, sports and relaxation for the founding fathers of ASEAN. It also became a venue for a number of informal negotiations over the document which later became the ASEAN declaration or Bangkok declaration.

In such a welcoming atmosphere, the five leaders were able to ease many of their historical political contradictions and develop a kind of ‘forgiving mentality’.  This informal diplomatic initiation was later known as “Sport-Shirt Diplomacy” and added a historical experience to the diplomatic expertise. Indeed, this relative isolation helped five leaders to move beyond their political sensitive matters with goodwill and cooperation.  Minister Adam Malik of Indonesia, in his speech, emphasized the need of collective efforts to address possible negative influences coming from outside the region as the ultimate goal. Similarly, he suggested pursuing a cooperative approach in resource and manpower sharing for deep economic cooperation. He pointed out how the Southeast Asian region can further move with its own capacities and strengths.

Tun Abdul Razak, the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia also highlighted the necessity of building common responsibility towards peace and stability in the region. He further added “we must get together and form by ourselves a new perspective and a new framework for our region”. What this statement says is a deep desire of all five nations to work together for mutual benefit while creating a certain regional identity. Today ASEAN is a successful model for regional integration and is capable of bringing various socio-economic and political benefits for its members. With the togetherness of its ten members, contemporary ASEAN is more confident in achieving its motto "One Vision, One Identity, One Community" in the near future. 

By contrast, the inauguration of ASEAN has added a fresh outlook into diplomatic endeavors by revealing “how to start simply” and “how to move successfully” following an informal opening. Equally, this particular event shows how informal and friendly beginnings are important in sustaining diplomatic relations among nations. Certainly this can be “a model initiation” that would enable diplomatic negotiators to build up mutual trust, confidence and familiarity among themselves prior to the formalities.

Consecutively such friendly environments with goodwill, humor, mutual understanding with psychological preparation for cooperation will add more pragmatic meaning to diplomacy. Although more than four decades have passed since the formation of ASEAN through Sport – Shirt Diplomacy of 1967, the spirit of Sport – Shirt diplomacy is still alive today and ASEAN is strengthening comprehensive connectivity and strengthening its ties and sustaining growth in the Southeast  Asian countries.

*Chaminda Padmakumara is a Research Scholar from Sri Lanka following a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programme in International Relations at the South Asian University.

 

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