After all the fears and worries of the preceding year, the ASEAN Charter will finally be signed at the 13th ASEAN Summit in Singapore on Tuesday, 20 November.
ASEAN ministers must have heaved a sigh of relief at this accomplishment. It is no mean feat considering the differences that have arisen during the drafting process on the issues of sanctions and the inclusion of a regional human rights body, and particularly in view of the Myanmar crisis looming in the background.
Even with the signing of the Charter, the real work is only just begun if ASEAN wants to be taken seriously. Jeremy Sarkin, professor of international human rights at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said that “a paper charter and toothless human rights institution will cause ASEAN to lose more credibility and legitimacy”. This danger has been recognized by Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo who said, “It will take us an important step forward, [bringing] regional integration to a higher level.” Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar added weight to this statement, saying that for greater effect, ASEAN ministers have agreed to ratify the Charter within one year. And herein lies the catch.
Philippine President Gloria Arroyo warned that her country would be hard-pressed to ratify the document within the one-year timetable if Myanmar refused to free opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The human rights situation in Myanmar which has been dominating the meetings remained an issue that will continue to haunt ASEAN even after the summit and charter-signing ceremony. Myanmar, seen as the recalcitrant member of the region, will go ahead to sign the Charter. Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win told reporters after the formal adoption ceremony, “We agree with the charter. We will sign, sure.” ASEAN has thus gone ahead with its intention of keeping Myanmar in the family despite US protestation and civil society pressures that it be expelled. Laos and Cambodia have come out to oppose any punitive action against Myanmar. China too reiterates its support of engagement with Myanmar to help it reform.
It may be because of this “soft touch” that Myanmar is acting haughtily, wanting to play by its own rules. The briefing to be given by UN special envoy Gambari to ASEAN leaders on Tuesday (20 November) had to be scrapped after protests by Myanmar’s Prime Minister Thein Sein. The latter emphasized that Mr Gambari ought only report to the UN Security Council and not to ASEAN or the East Asian Summit (EAS), and reiterated that the situation in Myanmar is a domestic affair. In view of Myanmar’s position, Singapore as ASEAN chair has no choice but to cancel the briefing, and will instead facilitate Mr Gambari’s meetings with interested parties.
Though ASEAN tried to put on a united front to keep Myanmar in the family, Myanmar’s stubbornness to reform rankles some ASEAN leaders. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo said, “After the ASEAN charter is signed, what will happen after that? Will they continue to string us along as they have done in the past?” He added, “The charter is good; but if you sign it, then you must implement what is there.”
There are also calls for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to demonstrate Indonesian leadership in ASEAN, especially in matters of human rights and democracy which have been a big part of Yudhoyono’s foreign policy. Senior legislator Theo Sambuaga said, “The President must tell the Myanmar leader directly and firmly to honor human rights and democracy, and release all political detainees, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The President must be firm in his position against Myanmar because it has become an international demand and even the demand of Indonesians.” It is felt that this is a golden opportunity for Indonesia to assert itself, and Yudhoyono has nothing to be afraid of since all the ASEAN leaders have already come out to chastise Myanmar. This view is echoed by Himahanto Juwana, the dean of University of Indonesia's School of Law, saying, “Indonesia must take a resolute attitude on Myanmar because Indonesia has a big role (in this region).” (20 November 2007)
Twists and turns at the summit (Today, 20 November 2007)
Toothless charter will hurt Asean credibility (Bangkok Post, 19 November 2007)
Cambodia says no to Myanmar sanctions (Channel News Asia, 19 November 2007)
SBY has chance to make history with Myanmar (Jakarta Post, 19 November 2007)
Southeast Asians finalize landmark constitution that will set up human rights body (AP, 18 November 2007)
Romulo asks: Can Myanmar abide by ASEAN charter? (INQUIRER, 18 November 2007)Southeast Asian ministers adopt landmark charter (AFP, 18 November 2007)