Australian Mission to ASEAN

Peace and Reconciliation in Southeast Asia

Resolving Domestic Conflict in Southeast Asia:  How to Build a Sustainable Peace

Opening remarks


Mr Simon Merrifield

Australian Ambassador to ASEAN

Dharmawangsah Hotel, Jakarta, 11 February 2015


Members of the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, the ASEAN Committee of Permanent Representatives and colleagues from the ASEAN Secretariat.  Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.  Thank you to the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation and the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for supporting this conference so ably organised by Wilton Park. Australia is proud to co-sponsor with the United Kingdom this opportunity for you all to discuss the very challenging but vital goal of resolving domestic conflict in Southeast Asia.  

What makes today’s conference important? It’s the experience we have in the room:  Nothing beats having the right people, and a supportive atmosphere, for frank and purposeful discussion.  For Australia, supporting the opportunity for you to make connections and learn from each other’s experience, in a way that can be applied practically to the real issues you face, is, unquestionably, a valuable endeavour.

Australia has a vital national interest in a peaceful and stable environment in our neighbourhood. We have a long history of working in Southeast Asia and the Pacific region in conflict resolution and peacebuilding:  in Cambodia, in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea and in Solomon Islands, where 13 years ago I led an International Peace Monitoring Team to supervise disarmament, build confidence and monitor implementation of the Townsville Peace Treaty. 

My colleague Nicholas Coppel will also share with you his experiences in Solomon Islands, where he was until recently the Special Coordinator for the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), a multinational team working with the people of Solomon Islands on making their peace sustainable by working to bolster local institutions and promote long-term economic development.

Our experiences have helped us to appreciate the factors that enable successful implementation of peace agreements, including the importance of :

  • local ownership and leadership;
  • long-term building of public institutions;
  • building confidence in the process, by improving people’s security and livelihoods in places with a legacy of conflict;
  • an inclusive approach; and
  • in stabilisation operations, an integrated and coordinated approach between military, police and civilian components.

As we all appreciate, this conference takes place at a critical moment.  Recent developments in the region have reminded us that the road to a sustainable peace is long and complicated, fraught with the threat of setbacks and stalemate.

In that regard, I offer my sincere condolences to the people of the Philippines for the tragedy in Maguindanao last month – a horrific event that reminded us of the challenges on the path to peace.  Australia has been a longstanding supporter of the Mindanao peace process, committing significant financial support to underpin the credibility of the peace process and boost the institutional capacity to implement the peace agreement.

In Myanmar, the peace negotiations currently underway holds great promise to resolve one of the longest-running series of conflicts in the world.  But we recognise that it is at a critical stage and there’s still much that needs to be done to bring long-term peace. With multiple negotiating parties, the peace process in Myanmar is complex. But one of its great strengths is that it is a locally-led and owned process.  Building on this strength, Australia wants to work to support Myanmar to create a strong and sustainable peace. We have provided funding since 2012 to a range of local and international organisations to help build confidence in the peace process, including by providing technical support to the negotiating parties, and by promoting the engagement of women and civil society in the process.

It is now ten years since the earthquake and tsunami devastated much of Aceh, where Australia gave an unprecedented one billion dollars to assist with recovery. But it is the way the community in Aceh has responded in the intervening years that is extraordinary. Not just in rebuilding, but also in taking the opportunity created by the devastation of the tsunami to heal the wounds of the past in the civil conflict which had racked Aceh for so many years. The ongoing peace and development in Aceh is a great testament to the resilience of the people.

It also illustrates a broader point: for the resolution of local conflict, regional and local leadership is key. A growing body of evidence from around the world demonstrates the limits of external actors in successful peace consolidation.   Ultimately, the success or failure of a peace process is driven by the determination of local leaders, both from governments and relevant national actors, including civil society.

This conference provides an opportunity to strengthen local leadership with the experience of others and to build new networks. Each situation is unique, but there are valuable insights that can be shared – including by learning from or even adapting previous success stories.

The next two days provide an opportunity to highlight experiences drawn from peace processes and conflict resolution in the region – Indonesia (Aceh), Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand – as well as from experiences abroad – such as Northern Ireland and Solomon Islands.

As Australia’s Ambassador to ASEAN, let me take a final moment to place what you are attempting to do with this conference in an ASEAN context, in what is a milestone year - its declaration of an ASEAN Community and the objective of the ASEAN Chair Malaysia to make ASEAN more accessible and relevant to its people.  Although this might not yet seem to have practical meaning for what you are here to talk about, as a long-time ASEAN watcher, let me share my thoughts on how your discussions link to the ASEAN project.

When ASEAN formed in 1967, against the turbulence of those times, few would have envisaged things turning out so well. But ASEAN itself has played a critical role in setting vision, leadership and deeply ingrained habits of consultation that has contributed immensely to the stability and prosperity of Southeast Asia’s ten countries. 

That said, while interstate conflict over the past seven decades has diminished, it is a sadly true observation that many conflicts within states in many regions have remained unresolved.  And as you know, that is a very difficult task.

Part of making ASEAN ‘people-centred’ is about translating some of the successes ASEAN has had in promoting a culture of peace and prosperity at the interstate level, to supporting peace, conflict management and conflict resolution within states. All the while in accordance of course with fundamental ASEAN principles such as respect for sovereignty, respect for each other, respect for diversity, regional cohesion and collective responsibility.

ASEAN already has moved towards this goal, though the journey is at an early stage. For example, through the ASEAN Regional Forum, Australia supports the region’s efforts to strengthen its preventive diplomacy capability to address peace and security concerns – preventive diplomacy being a phase of the ARF’s agenda it only began in 2011.

Although a relative newcomer, holding its inaugural meeting in December 2013, we welcome the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR)’s evolving role in helping ASEAN identify more innovative and creative means to promote peace, reconciliation, and conflict prevention in the region, and stand ready to provide practical support to that agenda, as we hope will be the case over the next two days of the conference.

This idea of learning from each other is not new. I’d like to highlight it is one that has already come from ASEAN itself rather than something that the UK and Australia have suggested. In commending AIPR’s early efforts, I would like to acknowledge the work of my good friend Ambassador Elizabeth Buensuceso of the Philippines in organising the first AIPR Symposium on Peace and Reconciliation Processes and Initiatives in Manila in April last year, and we hope our support for this conference supports AIPR’s own growth as an important regional institution.

In closing, want to acknowledge that conflict resolution is a long term and complex process and to reaffirm that Australia has an enduring commitment to peace and prosperity in South East Asia, including by supporting locally-driven peace processes as well as ASEAN-led mechanisms.

I wish delegates all the best in your discussions.  Thank you.