Global Policy Forum

ASEAN Searches for Common Political Values


By Marwaan Macan-Markar

Inter Press Service
August 1, 2005

As the regional grouping, ASEAN, embarks on a journey to make itself more cohesive it faces the daunting challenge of finding common ground on democratic values that its ten politically disparate members can identify with.

So far, the 38-year-old Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) has found it healthier to treat politics lightly while concentrating on concerns over economics, trade and development in the region. ASEAN's success as a regional bloc is largely due to the open and accommodating stance the group's founding members had towards differing political cultures. Strongmen and authoritarian leaders like Indonesia's former president Soeharto or Singapore's former prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew fitted in. The founding members Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, were later joined by Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, adding vastly to the political diversity.

By the end of the 38th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, held last week in the Lao capital of Vientiane, the foreign ministers were ready for even more accommodation. And reflective of the political make over, the planned ASEAN Charter aims to promote democracy, democratic institutions, human rights, transparency and good governance. To get the charter off the ground, an ''Eminent Persons Group (EPG), comprising highly distinguished and well-respected citizens from ASEAN Member Countries (will be given a) mandate to examine and provide practical recommendations on the directions and nature of the ASEAN Charter,'' reveals a draft declaration of the new charter. ''This is the most ambitious political project ASEAN is undertaking since it was founded in 1967,'' Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior editor and columnist on regional affairs at 'The Nation' newspaper in Thailand, told IPS. ''It is an attempt to make ASEAN a relevant body in the wake of change taking place around it.''

The charter will take the form of an ASEAN constitution, he added, since it is a document aimed at setting common standards of political behaviour and one which all members are legally bound to uphold. ''Indonesia has been a key mover behind this idea,'' said Kavi. ''It has argued that ASEAN needs a binding constitution for the region to be seen as a cohesive force.''

The Vientiane meeting also offered insight into political behaviour which will not be tolerated among its members. The group succeeded in compelling the military government of Burma to give up being its turn at chairing the group in 2006 on account of its oppressive political record. ''ASEAN displayed its political spine at last in Laos,'' Debbie Stothard of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN), a regional human rights watchdog, said in an interview. ''If they can make such an impact on such a military regime as Burma's, then what more can they achieve?'' The prospect of Burma becoming the chair of ASEAN next year had become a political time bomb, with key economic partners of the region - the United States and the European Union í» threatening to boycott an ASEAN with Burma as its leader. While Burma's lack of democracy and human rights may have offered ASEAN a yardstick to assert what it considers politically unacceptable, it faces the embarrassing reality of deciding what can be politically acceptable.

To begin with the region has an excess of one party states, where democracy has been twisted í» or is in the process of being given such treatment í» by powerful ruling political parties. Malaysia and Singapore where opponents live in fear, where the media is controlled and where national security laws are used to suppress challenges to the political establishment are glaring examples. Vietnam and Laos, on the other hand, are ruled by communist parties that show little respect for the political and civil liberties that Burma's military government was accused of suppressing. Thailand and Cambodia, which are developing democracies, are under a cloud of suspicion due to the domineering attitude of the single political parties that govern each of these countries. And Brunei is an Islamic sultanate, ruled by a monarchy, where the only time elections were ever held was in 1962.

Presently, the only two exceptions to this dominant culture of authoritarianism, albeit in various shades, are Indonesia, which is just coming out of over 30 years of dictatorship, and the Philippines with its deep democratic roots. ''The new charter they have in mind will have to address this political reality,'' says Stothard. ''ASEAN has never been successful in coming up with a common political model because of the lack of standards for good governance and the law.'' ''ASEAN's leaders are making a change but the question remains -- are they prepared to swim forward or just tread water?'' Stothard said. ''They will not be taken seriously if there is no shift in the group's internal operating culture.''

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