The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations wrapped up a two-day summit in Thailand under the theme "ASEAN Charter for ASEAN Peoples" on March 1. Topics under discussion included more effective community building, enhancing regional resilience against global threats and reinforcing ASEAN centrality in the evolving regional architecture.
This 14th summit was viewed as one of the most covered events by both regional and foreign media. The past 42 years of ASEAN's existence have been dominated by economy and security. Human rights issues were either ignored or evaded.
Five important issues contributed to the popularity of the gathering: It was the first summit after signing a landmark charter that made ASEAN a legal entity; it came amid a deepening global financial meltdown; it was delayed by dramatic political turmoil in the host country; it coincided with ongoing human rights violations in Burma [Myanmar] and the abuse of Rohingya refugees in Thailand; and it came amid renewed interest in the region by the United States.
WHETHER IT WILL CONTINUE TO CHOOSE APPEASEMENT OVER HUMAN RIGHTS REMAINS AN OPEN QUESTION.
There has been considerable cooperation and progress on different fronts, excepting human rights. Too much emphasis on economy has overshadowed the brutality of a regime like the Burmese military junta.
Human rights issues represent one fundamental area where ASEAN has failed. The charter calls for greater participation by youths and civil society groups 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 February 27, foreign ministers applauded the introduction of the ASEAN Human Rights Body. The final document, which is to be released in July, is designed to promote and protect human rights. It is, however, not empowered 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 a human rights initiative. For any decision to be taken, it will have to be "based on consultation and consensus", which is similar to veto power in the UN Security Council. The body will also have to follow the principle of "non-interference 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. 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 of how ASEAN has acted in the past. Whether it will continue to choose appeasement over human rights remains an open question.
Scot Marciel, US deputy assistant secretary of state and an 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, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said: "ASEAN will put people first - in its vision, in its policies and in its action plans." This statement has to involve a concerted approach by all ASEAN members. The establishment of the Human Rights Body should be the beginning of an end to rights abuses and a new era of freedom in line with the universal declaration of human rights.
By removing trade barriers and integrating on matters of economy, politics 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 the bloc to become a vibrant and responsible body, it needs to protect the welfare of the ruled and not just the rulers. The association needs to review its policy on Burma. Will ASEAN leaders continue to say that it is not our business when neighbours' houses are on fire, women are raped, thousands of villages are destroyed and thousands of people are forced to flee across borders?
The association needs to start addressing human rights problems - the issue on which the body has consistently failed.
Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in Myanmar.