By Pokpong Lawansiri
On the eve of its delayed annual summit, the 10-member bloc must show its policies are practical rather than rhetorical.
Thai Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva in Tokyo on February 6. Thailand will host the 14th Asean Summit beginning February 26.
The Thai government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, will finally convene the 14th Asean Summit, postponed in December following violent political upheaval that saw the seizure of Bangkok's two principal airports by the militant People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Early speculation held that a rescheduled summit would face difficulties following attempts by the anti-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship to petition Burma and Singapore to boycott because Thailand's government was undemocratic.
As the 10-member bloc prepares to mark its 42nd anniversary later this year - it was founded August 8, 1967 - observers wonder whether the organisation will maintain regional relevance.
During the adoption and ratification of the Asean Charter in 2007-08, member governments including Thailand insisted the charter would make the regional body a more "people-oriented" organisation. However, the text of the charter offers no clues to how the people in Asean countries can become involved in the body's decision-making process.
There are several instances in which Asean's relevancy has been questioned.
First, its policies have proven to be based mostly on rhetoric rather than a desire for practical implementation. The 1997 document "Asean Vision 2020" addressed the body's aim "to build a community of caring and sharing societies". But Thailand, as the current Asean chair, reiterates the quote on one hand but continues to label the Rohingya refugees from Burma as illegal migrants who should be detained and "pushed out" of the country. This contradicts the essence of "caring and sharing communities".
Second, the body's members do not take the organisation seriously. Last year, when Thailand and Cambodia were at their most critical level of dispute in decades over the ownership of the Preah Vihear temple complex - a dispute further energised by the PAD's ultra-nationalist fervor - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ignored Asean and brought the issue directly to the UN Security Council. He surely must have been aware that there is a conflict resolution mechanism in Asean to which he could refer the issue.
A former senior member at the Asean Foundation-a vital organisation within the bloc tasked with "promot[ing] greater awareness of Asean and interaction among the peoples of Asean" - told me recently that the Asia-Europe Foundation has been receiving far more funding from Asean governments than the body's own foundation.
Similarly, the Asean People's Assembly (APA), a yearly forum organized by the body's Institute for Strategic and International Studies in 2001, which attempts to bridge gaps between policymakers and civil society groups, is also facing a similar problem. While it recognises APA as an "important consultative mechanism for developing more people-oriented policies" within Asean's Vientiane Action Program, adopted in 1999, Asean is still not supporting the initiative. as this mechanism faces substantial financial constraints on its continued operations.
Third, participatory democracy is a foreign term among Asean governments. The charter - the group's first document to address people-oriented policies - was prepared discreetly, despite calls by civic groups for public discussion or even a referendum vote.
Last and most importantly, civil society and Asean observers view the body as unable to meet human rights challenges. While its bureaucrats often credit Asean for having secured peace in the region since its establishment, they forget to acknowledge that the body stood silent during the genocide in Cambodia, which at the time was not a member of the bloc.
Similarly, Asean allowed Indonesia to take extreme measures against East Timor - viewed by Jakarta as a renegade province - between 1974 and 1999. The conflicts in Cambodia and East Timor claimed the lives of approximately two million and 102,800, respectively.
And let's not forget that the human rights situation in Burma has not improved since its admission to the bloc in 1997.
Though the Asean Charter is currently working to establish the bloc's human rights body (AHRB) by appointing a High-Level Panel to draft the terms of reference (TOR), the plan has inspired very little hope for success among those following its development. The confidential text of the TOR highlights Asean's continued insistence on the principle of non-interference and its policy of vigorously defending the bloc against external interference on human rights issues.
Furthermore, it is generally known that the AHRB will focus on promotional roles rather than protecting human rights victims - in other words, that it will serve as a window-dressing mechanism for Asean.
On February 20-22, close to 1,000 civil society representatives will come together under the banner of the Asean People's Forum in Bangkok to discuss issues affecting them. One question that will top the agenda is the relevance of the 10-member bloc. The forum is expected to draft a statement to be delivered to Asean leaders on how the body can better serve them. If Asean insists on describing itself as a "people-oriented" organisation, it must surely begin acting like one by responding to the needs of its people on issues such as democracy and human rights, and thereby becoming relevant to the people it claims to serve.
Pokpong Lawansiri is an independent scholar and analyst of issues related to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He is based in Bangkok.