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The ASEAN Charter - Charting a difficult path forward

Updated On: Jan 19, 2007

As the leaders returned home from the ASEAN summit, the various regional papers have published articles and editorials on the results of the ASEAN summits, particularly on the ASEAN Charter.

The Malaysia General News noted favourably that the three declarations, “Cebu Declaration Towards a Caring and Sharing Community”, the “Cebu Declaration on the Blueprint for the ASEAN Charter” and “Cebu Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers” were the first “people-centred” documents signed by ASEAN.

The Jakarta Post carried an interview with former Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas who was one of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG). Alatas explained that ASEAN faces a “critical period in the changing world.” He pointed out the importance of the Charter in providing “legally-binding principles” and a “clear organisational structure to ASEAN.”

In an earlier article, the Jakarta Post urged the Indonesian Foreign Ministry to regard the Charter “as an utmost priority.” It warned that “ASEAN will not stand the test of time if it does not acknowledge the values of freedom and democracy burgeoning across the region.” It concluded that the public should “never expect too much, too soon, from a grouping in which informality and lethargy is a proud hallmark.”

In the Philippines, the media highlighted the irony of President Arroyo who succeeded in convincing the other ASEAN members to sign the ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism but has been facing difficulties in convincing her own Senate to ratify it. Arroyo had been trying to pass an anti-terror bill in the Philippines for the past year without any success.

The editorial Daily Yomiuri pointed out that the ‘future of the grouping is not necessarily bright.” It noted that both Myanmar and Vietnam protested against the change in the non-interference attitude. Nonetheless, it called the ASEAN Charter “a big step forward.”

The New Straits Times warned that “unless changes are made to the way decisions are arrived, it is more than likely that the idea of an ASEAN Community will remain pie in the sky.” The editorial also noted positively that ASEAN is finally moving towards “establishing the institutions and structures which would allow it to function more effectively.”

The Nation called the ASEAN leaders’ endorsement of the ASEAN Charter “an important milestone in the regional bloc’s history.” It pointed out that ASEAN had been unable to mobilise collective efforts by its members to achieve anything “substantial.” If left unchecked, this would “undermine its credibility to the point where it would lose relevance in today’s fast-changing global environment characterised by intense competition.” It also called Myanmar “a thorn” in ASEAN’s side and said that the “first task for a stronger ASEAN will be deciding how to persuade or compel Burma’s repressive military junta to restore democracy in that tortured country.”

The Bangkok Post was even more enthusiastic and asserted that “for the first time in recent memory, an ASEAN Summit has produced meaningful debate.” It provided two tests for ASEAN. The first was whether the ASEAN leaders “would follow up on their promises of better cooperation.” The second was whether the agreements on countering terrorists and free trade would be implemented. How the ASEAN members perform would decide whether ASEAN would have a “meaningful life or a long, uneventful slowdown leading to old age.”

However, despite some of the self-congratulatory or cautiously optimistic view of the ASEAN Charter and the declarations, there are signs that all is not well.

For one, the schizophrenic nature of the reporting means that reports about ASEAN drawing closer together are carried together with reporting of the strained ties between Thailand and Singapore. The New Straits Times carried an article in which Asda Jayanama, a former Thai diplomat to Singapore alleged that a senior member of Singapore had proposed a provision in the ASEAN Charter that any government that had emerged from the coup not be recognised.

The Philippines Daily Inquirer highlighted the paradoxes of drawing up a Charter which might provide for the expulsion of members due to human rights violation and unconstitutional change in government. When asked, President Arroyo said that there was no explicit discussion the issue. She said, “I don’t think Thailand felt alluded to… the natural things that came to mind was Mynamar.” The paper then noted that Arroyo herself came into power by “people’s power”, an unconstitutional change in government.

Whatever the comments in the papers, the truth is that there is still room for manouerve on the Charter.  People will be looking at what the actual Charter would look in a year’s time when it is presented to the leaders for endorsement. 

Sources:

Integration Via ASEAN Backdoor is Delusional (Business Times Singapore, 18 January 2007)

Singapore Has No Regards for Diplomacy Procedures, Says Ex Envoy (Malaysia General News, 17 January 2007)

ASEAN Faces ‘Critical Period’ in the Changing World (Jakarta Post, 17 January 2007)

Editorial: Will Envisaged Charter Change ASEAN? (The Daily Yomiuri [Tokyo], 16 January 2007)

Editorial: Asia Is Changing, ASEAN Must Too (Bangkok Post, 16 January 2007)

ASEAN Closer to Become Political, Economic Bloc (Malaysia General News, 16 January 2007)

ASEAN Charter A Big Step  Forward (The Nation [Thailand], 16 January 2007)

ASEAN Leaders Open to Sanctions on Less Sensitive Issues (Philippines Daily Inquirer, 16 January 2007)

Palace Vows Senate Ok of Regional Pact (Manila Standard, 15 January 2007)

A New Way for ASEAN (New Straits Times, 15 January 2007)







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