During Adam Malik’s Presidency of the 26th General Assembly session, the vote finds a successor to outgoing United Nations Secretary General U Thant was held. Among the candidates running for the post was Austrian Ambassador to UN, Kurt Waldheim. The Foreign Minister of Austria had requested Indonesian support for Dr. Waldheim that was readily been given by Adam Malik. Dr. Waldheim was so grateful that he promised a high position within the United Nations organization to a qualified Indonesian national should he be elected as Secretary General.
Waldheim was elected and was appointed as UN Secretary General commencing 1 January 1972. He indeed kept his promise to Adam Malik by offering to post of Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East or ECAFE to an Indonesian national. The Indonesian government proposed a career diplomat who previously had served in several multilateral forums. But for reasons still unknown to me, Dr Waldheim preferred another high-ranking Indonesian. As I recall it was in early October 1971 that I received an urgent call in Brussels from Foreign Minister Adam Malik informing me that the Indonesian Government had decided to nominate me as the candidate for the ECAFE post. I was of course very much surprised by this decision since it was only in February of that same year that I had presented my credentials to the King of Belgium, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg and the Presidents of the Council and Commission of the European community.
When President Soeharto paid a state visit to Belgium in November 1972, I asked the President why he had appointed me as candidate for ECAFE since I had only been in my post as Ambassador to Belgium only a few months earlier. The president answered “There are many candidates for the post as Ambassador, but for ECAFE you are the only one” I was of course very pleased with his reply.
Dr. Waldheim immediately approved my candidacy, as he was already familiar with me from the time I served as Ambassador to UN and as President of ECOSOC. On January 8 1973, at a press conference in the United Nations he announced my appointment as the new Executive Secretary of ECAFE with the rank of Assistant Secretary General. This designation was later up-graded to Under-Secretary general.
My predecessor at ECAFE, U Nyun of Burma asked for a brief postponement of the handover date to which I readily consented. I left Brussels in early July and spent three weeks on vacation with Nini and our six children in Switzerland. This was to be our last family re-union for a long time to come, for in the intervening years our children went their separate ways and somehow we never managed to congregate as one family in one place.
I arrived in Bangkok in July 20 1973 accompanied Nini and four of our youngest children, Larry, Mignonne, Mioche and Richele.
I assumed the post officially on 1 August 1973 as the fourth Executive Secretary of ECAFE.
To help me in my duties of Executive Secretary I selected Mr. H. Rudy Gontha as my special assistant, a strategic position of great importance in the bureaucratic labyrinth of the United Nations hierarchy. I needed the services of a person who was fully qualified and dedicated to the job. One who would be highly responsible, and above all trust worthy and loyal. Mr. Gontha possessed all those qualities. He was a close confident in my days in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and had served ably as my assistant in the Indonesian Permanent to the United Nations in New York. I have counted on his help during Adam Malik’s Presidency of the General Assembly and I knew I could tap on his experience yet again in my new position at ECAFE.
ECAFE was created in June 1947 with Shanghai as its original headquarters. After the communist victory in China, the headquarters were moved to Bangkok where it remained until the present. When I took over the helm of ECAF, the Commission had 35 regional and non-regional members, and 8 associate members.
ECAFE was the largest of the five regional commissions. The four others were ECLA (Economic commission for Latin America), ECE (Economic commission for Europe), ECA (Economic commission for Africa) and ECWA (Economic commission for West Asia).
The ECAFE region at the start of my tenure encompassed a vast area stretching from Iran in the west to the Cook Island in the far Pacific, and from Japan in the North to New Zealand in the South.
This area covered over 31 million square kilometres and was home to 2.7 billion people or 56% of the world’s population. The ECAFE region was also the most heterogeneous in terms of culture, traditions, religion and stages of economic, social and political development.
ECAFE was originally conceived as a machinery to promote and co-ordinate reconstruction in the wider sense and to bring all the international aid activities of the region into a common focus so that they might supplement and reinforce each other. During its early years a shift in the role of ECAFE was already discernable from its original ‘think-tank” to the promotion of economic development.
By the 1950s countries in the region were slowly accustomed to the idea of regionalism, an all-important precondition for the period of institution- building that was to follow in the next decade. Thus under its first three Executive Secretaries, Dr. Lokonathan (1947-56), C.V. Narashimhan (1956-59) and U Nyun (1959-73) ECAFE had evolved from a think tank to an increasingly action oriented organization, providing countries with economic development projects and programs aimed at regional and sub-regional economic co-operation.
As mentioned earlier, I was already quite familiar with the work of ECAFE from the several annual commission session I had attended in my early career with the Indonesian Foreign Service.
I felt, however, that I needed more time to familiarize and up date myself with ECAFE’s activities and objectives. It was in this context that I decided during the first months to travel widely in the region to personally acquaint myself with the leaders of several member countries to seek their views on ECAFE.
An important observation expressed by countries in the Pacific was that ECAFE was too Asian oriented (Asian High Ways, Asian Railroad etc.) with the Pacific considered merely an appendage of Asia, a view that I happened to share completely. Upon my return from these initial visits, I had already made up my mind on what I had to do.
First, I would propose to change the name of the organization to more accurately reflect its geographical boundaries. Second, I would give sharper focus to ECAFE operational capacity as the regional centre of United Nations development activities in tune with the new horizons and changing perspectives that were emerging in the region.
Let me deal with the proposal of changing the name first. Let me emphasize from the outset that my proposal to change the name was not for the sake of change itself. First and foremost was my resolve to see the organization more realistically reflecting the new political map and power relations in the region during that time. The People’s Republic of China, which already reoccupied its lawful seat in the United Nations, would be encourage to a more active role. Likewise with Vietnam in the aftermath of the Vietnamese war. Last but not least was the emergence of the Southeast Asian and Pacific countries on the political scene. The term Far East also carried with it political connotation –“far” from the Hague, London and France?
I brought up the subject of changing the name from Far East into Pacific at one of my first meeting with General Carlos Romulo of the Philippines, who was Foreign Secretary at that time. He was a very enthusiastic supporter since it was he himself had first initiated the proposal to substitute Far East with Pacific. However, this was turned down by my predecessor who had insisted that ECAFE was already a household word.
I suggested to Romulo to add the word Social as well since the regional commissions were subsidiary bodies of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. More important, however, was that the term social was intended to reflect an integrated approach to development embraced not only economic indicators but social dimensions as well. And members themselves would pledge themselves to pursue policies to create a more just and rational world economic and social order, where equality of opportunity was to be much a prerogative of nations as of individuals within a nation.
I proposed to rename ECAFE to the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. General Romulo nodded in agreement. His only question was what the abbreviation would be. I replied “Something like ESCAP”. He thought for a while and said. ”I agree as long as it is not escape”.
I submitted my proposal to the annual session of ECAFE that was held in Colombo in 19743m, my first session as Executive Secretary.
My proposal was adopted unanimously and subsequently endorsed by ECOSOC and United Nations General Assembly. ECAFE was subsequently renamed ESCAP as of 1974.
From then on I was referred to as Mr. ESCAP.