KUALA LUMPUR — On 15 December 2008, Southeast Asia took the first major step towards creating a pan-regional social and economic bloc of over half a billion people when the leaders of Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam adopted a landmark charter at the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Jakarta.
Hailing the event as historic, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared that Southeast Asia had finally left the bitter divisions and conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s and was now ready to forge the strongest possible political, economic, and social solidarity.
But the Indonesian leader’s optimism may have been premature, considering the many question marks hanging over the ability and willingness of the politically and economically disparate members of ASEAN to transform their group into a regional union on the lines of the European Union (EU), with a single free trade area targeted as early as 2015.
Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree, director of the Centre for Human Rights Studies and Social Development in Thailand’s Mahidol University, for one says that a Southeast Asian community is still far from becoming a reality. She adds that the region has a long way to go before it can even emulate the European example.
“The Charter has many attractive words but member countries and their citizens have very different visions, which are influenced by politics, culture, and religion,” says Sriprapha. “I do not imagine the citizens of these states are ready yet to live together.”
Southeast Asia’s political landscape spans a variety of governing systems. These include a sultanate, two multi-party democracies, three constitutional monarchies, a single party-controlled democracy, two communist-ruled states, and a military regime.
Two Crucial Tests
The first test of ASEAN’s ability to evolve into a regional economic and political community is the nearing deadline for a single common market.
Many think this is highly unlikely to be met given that ASEAN’s 10 members are at very different levels of economic development. ASEAN includes affluent Brunei and Singapore, the middle-income economies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as Cambodia, Laos, and Burma, which are among the poorest nations in the world.
Civil-society representatives and rights activists say that an equally important priority is to reduce the sharp disparities among member countries in guaranteeing civil liberties and promoting social and political inclusiveness.
Just this August, Malaysian police broke up an opposition rally in Kuala Lumpur that was held to demand repeal of laws allowing indefinite jail terms without charge for those criticising the government. About 600 people were arrested at the protest, which drew an estimated 20,000 people and tested Prime Minister Najib Razak’s promise upon taking office earlier this year to moderate repressive laws and guarantee civil liberties.
Months earlier, the editor of a pro-opposition newspaper in Cambodia was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, while human-rights lawyer, writer, and blogger Le Cong Dinh was arrested in Vietnam.
Even Thailand, which up until a few years ago seemed to be revelling in the revival of its democracy, is now busy blocking thousands of websites, supposedly because of ‘national security’ concerns.
All these do not make for a successful EU-wanna-be. After all, says Jean Francois Cautain, chargé d’affaires of the Delegation of the European Commission to Thailand, respect for human rights is an indispensable condition that aspiring members to the European Union have to meet. Others have remarked that it is a prerequisite as well in any attempt to build a regional economic community.
A Blighted Record
Then again, this rather muddy ground is familiar to ASEAN, which has long been slammed for turning a blind eye to the gross denial of human rights and civil liberties by some of its members, and for taking cover behind the so-called principle of ‘non-interference’ in internal affairs.
Indeed, it was only this year that ASEAN, on the initiative of current chair-nation Thailand, spoke out on the continued detention of global pro-democracy and human-rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi by Burma’s military regime. Unsurprisingly, this failed to stir the members of the Burmese junta off their seats in Naypyidaw, although they did make the effort to insist they have the right to restrict the civil liberties of the Nobel Peace laureate.
Non-government groups in Southeast Asia and elsewhere have demanded more action from ASEAN to ensure compliance with human rights among its members, with organisations from the likes of Cambodia even going as far as asking for punitive measures.
But to Termasak Chalermpalanupap, special assistant to the ASEAN Secretary General, the accent should be on “collective responsibility around the questions of peace, security, and regional prosperity” rather than on the principle of non-intervention.
For sure, optimists remain regarding the chances of ASEAN achieving its latest lofty objectives. The EU itself welcomed the adoption of the terms of reference of an ASEAN human-rights body during the July 2009 ASEAN ministerial conclave in Phuket in Thailand, with EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana expressing the hope that it would be used to promote and protect human rights in the region.
The EU is promoting rights awareness in Southeast Asia, where some of the ASEAN members have established human-rights bodies. In March, the EU gave a €90,000 grant for the setting up of websites on human-rights issues in the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Cambodia is likely to join the project.
ASEAN, however, has been reluctant to allow civil-society criticism of the human-rights records of some members. The ASEAN high-level meetings in Chaam, Thailand in February this year, for example, denied participation to two human-rights activists, one Cambodian, the other Burmese. To Khin Omar, a Burmese women’s rights advocate, the incident only proved that the adoption of the ASEAN Charter was merely a public-relations exercise.
A Community Prone to Ruthlessness
ASEAN is also a long way from accepting EU human-rights norms, which ban use of torture by the state and capital punishment. Only Cambodia and the Philippines have abolished the death penalty so far.
According to the Malaysian NGO Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture or Madpet, some 300 convicts were awaiting execution in that country as of last January. In December 2008, Malaysia voted against a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions.
Malaysia is also among the countries in the ethnically heterogeneous region in which discrimination is state-sanctioned. In Malaysia, where ethnic Chinese and Indian communities have a significant presence, the state-approved discrimination favours the majority Malay population.
Speaking in Malaysia, Kevin Boyle, an academic specialising in human-rights issues at the University of Essex in the United States, says that cultural, religious, and political differences are frequently pretexts for rights abuse.
In contrast to ASEAN’s issue of non-intervention, the EU has been quick to step in when racism has surfaced in any member nation, such as during the 2002 French presidential election and the emergence of Austria’s ruling coalition that included an extreme right-wing party.
Being part of the EU community also means borderless respect of individual rights. A German working in France, for example, enjoys the same labour rights and protection as his French colleague. This is far from being the case in Southeast Asia, where hundreds of thousands of undocumented economic migrants from the poorer member countries continue facing harassment from employers and authorities. As migration specialist Jerrold Huguet notes, there is no effective institutional mechanism for protecting undocumented migrant workers in ASEAN.
Political observers say the region has to put behind as well simmering tensions between some member nations that have flared into verbal and armed conflicts. Just recently, Thailand and Cambodia butted heads over the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple complex. The dispute even saw a worrisome bit of border sabre-rattling, despite the fact that four decades ago, the matter had been considered settled when Cambodia was awarded the complex by international judicial arbitration.
Similar, less well-known disputes continue to sour relations between Malaysia and Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, and Indonesia and Malaysia. Aspiring ASEAN member Timor Leste has a long troubled past with its big neighbour Indonesia that culminated in Timor Leste’s recent independence.
But European envoy Cautain is quick to point out that the construction of the European Union took time. Now the EU’s 27 members have long forgotten the violent armed confrontation that tore apart the continent around the middle of the last century.
The EU is doing its bit to speed up Southeast Asian integration with a grant of €1.3 billion for 2007-2013. Says Cautain: “In Europe also, there were wars before…but the spirit of union urged the people to become reconciled. Europe has stayed at peace for 52 years now.”