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ASEAN Hoping for Momentum

March 4, 2009

Last weekend, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held its 14th Summit in Cha-am, Thailand. This was the first summit since the ratification of the ASEAN Charter in December 2008, making the group a rules-based organization and committing it to principles of good governance, rule of law, and the protection of human rights for the first time in its 41-year-old history. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva opened the summit by saying, “ASEAN will put people first – in its vision, its policies, and action plans.”

However, from what took place at the summit, ASEAN might be wearing bifocals when looking into the future. If you are a business person, ASEAN’s vision could seem far-sighted, looking well into the future as it works to fulfill its ambitious goal of creating a single market (an ASEAN economic community) by 2015. On the other hand, if you are a civil society leader, you are likely to believe ASEAN is short-sighted – particularly one member: Burma.

The key issue for the ASEAN summit was how to deal with the global economic crisis. Prior to the leaders meeting in Cha-am, the “ASEAN Business and Investment Summit” was held in Bangkok where 700 business leaders attended. With a gross domestic product of over USD$1 trillion and a population of 570 million, Southeast Asia holds great economic potential. The region’s middle class is larger than China’s and only slightly smaller than India’s. Economic forecasts call for ASEAN to bypass Japan and the United States to become China’s third and second largest trading partner in 2010 and 2015, respectively. At the “Business and Investment Summit,” Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN’s Secretary General, said, “ASEAN and ASEAN +3 (China, Japan, and South Korea) will be another pole of growth and center for economic dynamism,” and that this development is a reflection of “a new economic architecture that will have to be multi-polar.” He added that “…business leaders are the real drivers of economic integration,” and that “SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises) must be integrated and doing business across borders.” (Read the Secretary General’s comments.)

Expanding linkages both within ASEAN and with major trading partners, including the U.S., will be critical to the future economic success of the region.

However, if you were a civil society leader in Cha-am, you likely left feeling disappointed. Both Burma and Cambodia’s leaders threatened to walk out of the ASEAN summit if they were forced to meet with civil society representatives that were not endorsed by their respective governments. This boycott contravened Article 1.13 of the ASEAN Charter: “to promote a people-oriented ASEAN, in which all sectors of society are encouraged to participate in, and benefit from, the process of ASEAN integration and community building.”

Instead of focusing on how ASEAN can work together to weather the global economic crisis, human rights – the group’s Achilles Heel – became a dominant issue at the meeting in Cha-am. The development of an ASEAN Human Rights body was discussed at the summit, but thus far there has been no agreement on the criteria and process for nominating human rights commissioners, their job descriptions, and whether they would have any monitoring role or will just promote awareness of human rights. Given the near-sacrosanct ASEAN principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of each member, it is difficult to see how an ASEAN Human Rights Body will wield much influence if it does not have the authority to investigate, or act, on alleged human rights violations in Burma – or elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Expectations about the summit in Cha-am were high. But even if the summit fell short of these expectations, the future success of ASEAN should not be contingent on this one meeting. ASEAN needs to build momentum. Security, economic, and social integration will take time, and all three pillars will not necessarily fall into sync, and perhaps not even by 2015. But all member nations need to understand that for ASEAN to succeed, it needs to be held accountable. This means ASEAN’s citizens, from all walks of life, should have a larger say in how their governments make decisions. If this does not happen, ASEAN will fail as an institution that puts people first, and its vision will be impaired.

John Brandon is Director of The Asia Foundation’s International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C. He attended the “ASEAN Business and Investment Summit” when visiting Thailand last week and can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org.

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