Whither Asean Amid Region’s Tensions and Growing Pains?

Forty-three years after its birth, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is now home to nearly 9 percent of the earth’s population, with a combined economic product last year of $1.5 trillion.

But does it mean anything to prisoners of conscience in Burma, refugees in Thailand or land protesters here? Will it, like the European Union or the Organization of American States, remain relevant to regional development in the decades to come?

Speaking at a symposium in Phnom Penh yesterday on the future of US-Cambodian relations, Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace–one of several NGOs and think-tanks affiliated with Asean–said he was “very doubtful” that Asean would continue to be a regional driving force in coming decades.

Mr Vannarith said that Asean’s cumbersome decision-making process and policy of non-intervention in members’ affairs stood in the way of decisive action in international events.

“Asean doesn’t reform fast enough to stay relevant in regional security and regional economic mechanisms,” he said. “Asean is very slow to react, especially when it comes to conflict resolution.”

His comments coincided with the 43rd annual Asean Ministerial Meeting in Hanoi. Ministers from member countries met this week, and a series of related meetings were set to end today.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, along with other Asean heads of state, signed a declaration in March last year calling for the nations to form an integrated community by 2015. It specified three main areas of cooperation–economic, political-security and socio-cultural.

Mr Vannarith added his voice to calls–first issued publicly by the Indonesian government in 2004–for Asean to maintain a peacekeeping force, to intervene in extreme cases where major human rights abuses are being committed.

“Asean promotes human rights but doesn’t protect human rights,” he said.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment yesterday, saying Foreign Minister Hor Namhong was at the Asean meeting in Hanoi.

However, Ros Chantrabot, vice president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said Asean was designed to address matters of trade, not politics and democracy.

“Asean never considers politics and never interferes in other Asean members internal affairs,” Mr Chantrabot, who did not participate in Thursday’s symposium, said by telephone. “Asean is solely focused on economics and business.”

“Asean feels that if economies and businesses expand, political issues and everything else will be resolved by themselves.”

By contrast, the governments of the European Union were uniformly democratic and did not experience border disputes, he said.

Asean members are currently monitoring the situation in Burma ahead of elections there later this year, Mr Vannarith said. On Tuesday, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said the country had received “an earful” during the meetings in Hanoi, according to the news agency Reuters.

Asean has faced criticism in some quarters for not taking a tougher stand over the Burmese elections and has resisted calls for a public rebuke. Though terms of reference took effect last year, plans for an Asean human rights commission have been met with skepticism.

In April, Cambodia requested an urgent Asean summit on the escalating violence surrounding anti-government protests in Bangkok. The request was dismissed.

Given the Asean policy of non-intervention, Mr Vannarith said what was needed was a “soft interpretation and more flexible implementation” of those rules.

Mr Vannarith also criticized the organization’s decision-making process and advocated switching to a majority voting system. Asean currently requires all member states to agree on any proposal. Under such a system, deals “cannot be struck if one member state doesn’t agree,” he said.

Mr Vannarith said he felt the relationship between China and the US will be important to the future of Southeast Asia. The two superpowers “can be the main actors, working together in this region,” he said.

He said the US relationship with China was in the process of changing.

“US falling, China rising–that the status quo will be changed cannot be avoided,” he said, though he did say that he felt it would be at least 40 or 50 years before China surpassed the US in terms of international influence and power.

(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin)


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