What fails ASEAN?

Published on March 10, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen


The Phnom Penh Post – March 11, 2009


The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) wrapped up a two-day summit in Thailand under the theme ‘ASEAN Charter for ASEAN Peoples’ on March 1. The discussion included: toward more effective community building, enhancing regional resilience against global threats, and reinforcing ASEAN centrality in the evolving regional architecture.


Over the years, the association has gained gradual attention and recognition from around the world for its successes and failures. This 14th summit was viewed to be one of the most covered events by both the Eastern and Western media. The past 42 years of its existence had been dominated by economy and security. Human rights issues were either ignored or evaded.


Five important issues contributed to the popularity of the gathering. First, it was the first summit after signing a landmark charter that made ASEAN a legal entity; second, the global financial meltdown; third, the summit postponement due to political turmoil in the host country; fourth, the continued human rights violations in Burma and recent Rohingya refugees’ issue; fifth, the new U.S. administration showing interest in the region.


There have been considerable cooperation and progress on different fronts but human rights. The association’s non-interference policy has been an object of international criticism. Too much emphasis on economy has overshadowed the brutality of a regime like the Burmese military junta; the bloc’s engagement policy has not yielded a democratic change.


Human rights issue is one fundamental area where ASEAN has been failing. To transform ASEAN into a European Union-style of single market by 2015, which the bloc envisions, will entail substantive changes. The charter calls for greater participation by youths and other civil societies to make the bloc stronger, but the fact is that millions of people from these countries are still afraid to voice their opinions freely.


On 27 February, foreign ministers applauded the introduction of ASEAN Human Rights Body. “It is a historic first for Southeast Asia,” said Rosario Manalo, a Philippine diplomat. The final document, which is expected to be released in July, is designed to promote and protect human rights. It is, however, not powered to enforce stringent measures to the extent of punishing a member country.


There is a reason behind why a repressive regime like Burma’s State Peace and Development Council welcomes such human rights initiative. The simple fact is that for any decision to be taken, it will have to be “based on consultation and consensus,” which is similar to a veto power system in the U.N. Security Council. The body will also have to follow the principle of “noninterference in the internal affairs of ASEAN member states.”


On the opening day of the summit, ASEAN leadership was tested on the very issue they applauded for. Two democracy activists from Burma and Cambodia, who were selected to represent their own countries, were barred from attending the meeting when leaders of the two countries threatened to walk out. This is an example how ASEAN has taken its course of action in the past. Will ASEAN continue to choose appeasement over human rights is a question remains to be seen?


Echoing the U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s message on Burma during her maiden trip to Asia, Scot Marciel, deputy assistant secretary of state and envoy to ASEAN, said, “The sanctions based approach hasn’t worked, the ASEAN engagement approach hasn’t worked….there isn’t any obvious way ahead.”


In his summit opening speech, the Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said, “ASEAN will put people first – in its vision, in its policies, and in its action plans.” This statement, if to be materialized, has to involve a concerted approach by all ASEAN members. The establishment of Human Rights Body should be the beginning of an end to rights abuses and a new era of freedom in line with universal declaration of human rights.


By removing trade barriers and integrating economically, some political and security, ASEAN looks forward to becoming a European Union-like community in 2015. If this comes to a reality, ASEAN will have a greater leverage in international politics.


In order for ASEAN to become a vibrant and responsible body, it needs to protect the welfare of the ruled and not just the rulers. After years of engagement policy failure, the association needs to review its policy on Burma. Will ASEAN leaders continue to say that it is not our business when neighbors’ houses are on fire, women are raped, thousands of villages are destroyed, and thousands of people flee across borders?


In tandem with a new vision and goal-setting of making ASEAN a respectable body, the association needs to start addressing human rights problems, the issue on which it has been failing.


Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004). He is also author of several analytical articles on the politics of Asia published in different leading newspapers.