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A New ASEAN Way: Beyond the War on Drugs

The Southeast Asian region is the core of a number of geopolitical, climate-related and criminal challenges. Throughout the majority of the 20th century it experienced the conflicts linked to imperial domination and the sparring of great powers. Becoming one of the Cold War’s main proxy arenas, it faced the rise of several repressive authoritarian regimes and violent intraregional wars. The continuously turbulent situation required aligned efforts to tackle several political and security issues - only a more intergovernmental approach, such as the ones already in use in other parts of the world, could potentially resolve them .

In 1967, the Southeast Asian states of Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore came together to draft and sign a common document. Though the document was brief, with only five articles, it established what we now know as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The document stated ASEAN’s goals and objectives, including economic, social, cultural, technical and educational cooperation, and the development of regional peace and stability by upholding the rule of law and compliance to the United Nations Charter's principles (The ASEAN Secretariat, n.d.); it also asserted all Southeast Asian countries which subscribe to its principles are eligible to join, resulting in the later adhesion of Brunei (1984), Vietnam (1995), Laos (1997), Myanmar (1997) and Cambodia (1999).

The success of the Southeast Asian intergovernmental community would soon be known as the “ASEAN Way”. This path represents a type of regional cooperation in which sovereignty and national interest are prioritised, wherein a non-confrontational, consensus-driven decision-making model, which allows member states to withdraw from any initiative, is adopted (Razak, 2018). Supranational institutions like the ASEAN Secretariat possess only minimum authority and prevent legal obligations outside of its main responsibilities. Nevertheless, as the Southeast Asian project develops beyond its initial period of rapid economic growth, the once successful formula now seems to have hit a plateau, owing to the lack of fundamental reforms and increased political-economic integration to resolve major regional challenges.

One of the main security issues that continues to threaten stability and peace both internally and externally to the ASEAN region is drug trafficking and consumption. Why have regional efforts to address narcotrafficking since the foundation of the Southeast Asian organisation fallen short and what possible solutions could be implemented to effectively combat this public and security threat – while possibly even reinventing the ASEAN project?

  1. Understanding Southeast Asia’s narco-trafficking challenge

For the first time, in 1976, the national leaders of ASEAN issued the Declaration of ASEAN Concord, which resolved to strengthen cooperation between member states but also with relevant multilateral institutions in an effort to prevent and eradicate illicit drug abuse and trafficking. The foreign ministers of ASEAN's five founding members then signed the ASEAN Declaration of Principles to Combat the Abuse of Narcotic Drugs later that year. This memorandum requested member states “(…) strengthen cooperation on vigilance and preventive and penal measures, drug research and education and improvements in national legislation in the fight against drug abuse” (The ASEAN Secretariat, n.d.).

With the reiteration of a common political commitment among member states at the 1997 2nd Informal Summit, the initiative against narcotics picked up steam. ASEAN leaders agreed that a common platform to free Southeast Asia from drug trafficking, production and consumption was a regional security priority. This resulted in the 1998 Joint Declaration for a Drug-Free ASEAN by 2020, which aimed to eliminate illicit drug production, preparation, trafficking, and consumption in Southeast Asia within approximately 22 years. Two years after the declaration, ASEAN’s Foreign Ministers agreed to advance the deadline for achieving a drug-free ASEAN to 2015, establishing the "Bangkok Political Declaration in Pursuit of a Drug-Free ASEAN 2015".

Despite ASEAN’s claim to still be pursuing this objective in theory, seven years after the agreed deadline the objective is further from grasp than ever before. This is, however, an unsurprising development. Over the last two decades, Asian criminal networks have expanded their international presence, generating large amounts of revenue. The latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s publication on “Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia: latest developments and challenges 2022”confirms that large amounts of methamphetamine are produced, trafficked, and consumed throughout the region. The publication also highlights the diversification of the synthetic drug business, as well as the rise of organised crime and armed groups in Myanmar's Golden Triangle and adjacent zones in the past year. This is primarily linked to fallout from the pandemic and political instability in the country (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2022). Despite this evident downturn, member states have neglected issues of public security and social welfare, instead making significant investments in transfrontier trade and infrastructure.

Fig. 1: Southeast Asia's 'Golden Triangle' (Salleh, 2020)

While transnational narcotic trafficking is not a theme commonly explored in International Relations, some of its main theses can be applied to these phenomenons and state-actors’ strategies so as to better understand them.

Let’s consider the Copenhagen School’s Securitisation theory, which, though associated with constructivism, can be combined with traditional approaches such as realism while forgoing its materialistic analysis. It holds that a state-actor (defined here as a securitising actor) designates an impending threat to a certain "item" and elevates it to the status of a security concern by engaging in discourse aimed at a particular audience. Following this, the actor implements an "extraordinary measure" to eliminate the perceived threat (Kushlick, 2011).

In practice, this IR theory highlights two situations. First, we can observe the application of said theory by a number of ASEAN state-actors. Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte was elected in 2016 partially on the premise of his aggressive policy on narcotics and traffickers in the country, defining it as a top priority for the sake of the Filipino state and citizens. He promised a “shoot-to-kill” policy on drug traffickers and even sellers (Utama, 2021, p. 47), adopting strong rhetoric in reference to the supposed national existential threat. Likewise, in response to the increase in illicit drug abuse, the Indonesian government implemented a policy shift on opiates and other psychoactive drugs during the 1990s by enacting Law No. 5 on Psychotropic Drugs and Law No. 22 on Narcotics in 1997. The passage of the new law marked a watershed moment in the fight against this security threat. This law elevated illicit substance abuse to the status of a serious national threat, thus ushering in the securitisation of the country's illicit drug problem and strengthening the legal framework of Indonesia's National Narcotics Board (Widiyono, 2018, p. 40). Other states such as Brunei, while not actively engaging in a discursive belligerence towards the production and consumption of illicit narcotics, have displayed increasing political will to intensify the fight against drug-related organised crime within its borders.

Second, while there have been calls from within the association for stronger commitment to securitising the drug issue through a common ASEAN platform (Venzon, 2016), such appeals have yet to materialise in sufficient coordinated responses between all member states, leaving the central focus of drug policy solely within the purview of national governments. The ASEAN community remains incapable of implementing regional-wide projects with long-term, coherent outlooks to resolve the persistent and intensifying drug challenge affecting Southeast Asia.

The political regimes comprising the Southeast Asian international association, while committed to increasing investment in trans-border logistics and national institutions, still essentially lack long-term political aspirations to pursue fundamental reforms. As previously mentioned, key policy decisions related to the issue are left in each member-state’s hands, with little coordination and monitoring by ASEAN’s Secretariat. With that said, two possible though ambitious solutions can be proposed.

First, on a microcosmic level, the continued belligerent policy of aforementioned ASEAN member states towards the narcotic public emergency has as of yet failed to deliver the expected results (Venzon, 2016). Since 2011, the international panel Global Commission on Drug Policy has stated “the global war on drugs is a failure and should be replaced by decriminalisation strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights” (The Leadership Conference Education Fund, 2011). This has been increasingly perceived as the best drug policy model as it neither marginalises nor targets vulnerable citizens but instead offers a degree of stability and security through proper social protection and welfare.

This shift from a punitive state to a rehabilitative state is essential to terminate the violent and expensive War on Drugs, and develop towards a comprehensive healthcare policy based on the decriminalisation of drugs. This model has been championed by Portugal since 2000, developed and led by João Castel-Branco Goulão, former chairman of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and a delegate of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Within the same decade, the results were apparent, with “(…) new HIV infections, drug deaths and the prison population all [falling] sharply (…)” (Slade, 2021). Even with some long-term results under continued investigation, one conclusion is already clear – dealing with illegal drug-related issues as a public health problem instead of a state-sponsored domestic war that creates further victims is evidently a more rational and effective solution.. This shift has been taken into account by ASEAN member states. In 2019, the Malaysian government apparently veered away from its original warring discourse on drugs, showing instead a new commitment to decriminalising drug consumption and possession under certain quantities. This could represent a major development in the Southeast region of the continent towards more inclusive and scientific policies on tackling this public threat (Jha, 2019).

Finally, from a macro level, ASEAN must evolve towards a renewed strategy and commitment in order o create a new framework to process not only this long existing security issue but other hypothetical scenarios. The time has come to reinvent and integrate the ASEAN way - to rethink the concept of policy-making together.

In 2012, member-states’ foreign ministers' failure to reach an agreement on the joint declaration at the close of their Phnom Penh meeting was hailed as a major disaster in the organisation's history and reputation. Yet this was denied by the association, instead presented as a simple blunder between members (Majid, 2012, p. 82). Such an approach is concerning, showcasing the intensification of nation-state realpolitik as the organisation becomes more fragmented and strays away from its compromise-focused intergovernmental modus operandi.

It is not the first time that intergovernmental unions of continental or regional dimensions face a major obstacle that defines the next major steps of these projects. The African Union’s Agenda 2063 and European Union’s Maastricht Treaty weren’t drafted to satisfy the idealistic ambitions of political elites but rather to take the most natural courses to achieve realistic utilitarian results that will benefit as many people, communities and states as possible.

The ASEAN project in itself demonstrates that even in some of the most complex and difficult political, climacteric and cultural environments in the world, different communities with different political systems and cultures can converge towards major goals and successfully accomplish them. During the first years of ASEAN’s foundation, skepticism about its longevity was widespread. And yet, fifty-five years have passed since its conception.

The geographical proximity of ASEAN member states is not enough to ensure political and economic integration and cooperation among them. One possible recommendation is to increase the ability of the association’s governance to implement coordinated regional responses. In this manner, the ASEAN Secretariat would be allocated more authority to lead collective decisions. For regional integration to succeed, the Secretariat must develop into a unifying institutional figure that represents the diverse interests of its integrating members while steering the project towards a new ASEAN way, one that is open to current and future challenges.



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Venzon, C. (2016, September 6). Duterte wants ASEAN war on drugs. Nikkei Asia. Retrieved from

Widiyono, Y. (2018). The Effect of Illicit Drugs Securitization in Indonesia. Old Dominion University, International Studies. ODU Digital Commons. doi:10.25777/k6y0-3v94

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