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The padi plant of the ASEAN flag

April 2, 2013

ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) aims at facilitating trade just like in the EU (European Union). Its ten member countries has a flag in common, but what does it symbolize?


When I saw the flag for the first time at a local sub-district office in northern Thailand I asked the nearby Thai villagers what that flag was, but nobody knew. I suspected it was the ASEAN flag and derived interesting information from the official website of the ASEAN secretariat in Indonesia. The blue represents peace and stability, red courage and dynamism, white purity, yellow prosperity, the circle unity and in the centre ten stalks of ‘padi’ representing the ten member countries bound together. I thought it looked like a sheaf of rice, but ‘rice’ is such a common word that the emphasis on ‘padi’ might in fact allude to another plant, and that intrigued me.

Although Thailand was one of five founding fathers of ASEAN in 1967, my Thai family had never seen the flag (adopted in 1997) and had no clue what ‘padi’ was. I e-mailed the ASEAN secretariat and asked about ‘padi’ but I never received any reply. A few days later I searched for ‘padi’ on internet and realized other people have had the same question. I checked Malay-English and Indonesian-English dictionaries and not surprisingly ‘padi’ is the etymological origin of the English word ‘paddy’, i.e. ‘rice before threshing’.

English is the official language of ASEAN, so why the local word ‘padi’ was used instead of the simple English word ‘rice’ on the official English ASEAN website is surprising. The word for rice is totally different in other parts of ASEAN (‘kao’ in Thai, lúa in Vietnamese) so ‘padi’ makes no sense in these countries either. A closer look at the website shows it still depicts the old flag of Myanmar (Myanmar changed flags in October 2010) so maybe this website is no longer active, although it looks official.

Selecting a sheaf of ten paddy stalks as a symbol is clever. Rice is a staple food in most of the ASEAN region and a unifying symbol among otherwise very different nations with a diversity of languages, alphabets, cultures, government forms and religions.

The reluctance of the secretariat to answer questions and the ignorance of the citizens about the organization reminds me very much of the EU. The idea of the five founding ministers is great, but to transfer their individual enthusiasm to ASEAN civil servants and citizens of the ASEAN nations is a huge pedagogic challenge.

The ten members of the ASEAN are: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. When their flags are on display, they should be arranged in this alphabetical order, with the ASEAN flag to the right of the Vietnamese.

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Text & Photo: Eric Danell, Dokmai Garden

Flag: from the ASEAN official website

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