The two-day 39th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM), concluded on July 25, was overshadowed by the evolving crises in the Middle East and tensions in theKorean Peninsula.
Within its own backyard was the “purported unhappiness” over the lack of reforms and response from Myanmar. With all these issues clouding the horizon, it was no wonder that the joint communiqué issued at the end of the meeting was unusually long running into 105 paragraphs.
The theme for this year’s AMM, chosen by host country Malaysia, is “Forging a United, Resilient and Integrated ASEAN”. And to show that ASEAN is serious about greater integration, Asean officials revealed plans to craft a charter by next year (Asean’s 40th founding anniversary) to accelerate the realisation of the Asean Economic Community from 2020 to 2015.
Prompted by concerns over the rise of India and of China, Asean officials say that the creation of a unified ASEAN bloc by 2015 would allow for a free flow of goods, services and human resources across the region, albeit without a single currency system. The move is strongly supported by Singapore, Thailand and Brunei, with the rest of the member states “not averse” to the initiative, according to Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo.
As one of the concrete measures to forge an integrated ASEAN, the foreign ministers also signed the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Visa Exemption to promote the tourism sector and improve economic opportunities and social interaction via intra-ASEAN travel.
Once ratified, the agreement will exempt citizens of Asean member states from visa application for social visits of up to 14 days. The agreement’s impact is greatest on Myanmar, which thus far only has bilateral visa arrangements with Thailand and the Philippines.
Indonesia has also drafted a statement to promote further integration amongst Asean member states in disaster management and emergency response cooperation, amid the country’s ongoing natural disaster woes. According to Foreign Ministry director of intra-regional cooperation for the Asia Pacific and Africa, Ibnu Hadi, “ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) senior officials have agreed to the draft” and member states will agree to share information on forecasting and monitoring hazards and disasters, to enable the identification of risks and preparations for disaster relief operations. The statement will be formally issued during the 13th ARF.
However, The Star (July 27) reported that only Thailand and Malaysia have thus far ratified ASEAN’s Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response, even though the foreign ministers of all 10-member countries have signed the agreement at the last ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Vientiane, Laos, on July 26 last year. The numerous triple threats of volcano eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis plaguing Indonesia in recent months and the country’s renewed efforts to rouse regional support may spur the Agreement’s ratification.
While some members are eager to forge ahead, typically, there are others who are more cautious. Hence, the plan to establish Permanent Representation of ASEAN member states in Jakarta was put on hold. This plan was also mooted by Indonesia, with the aim of having the respective member state interest represented at the ASEAN Secretariat, headquartered in Jakarta, as well as facilitating the coordination of increasing work volume in ASEAN – 600 meetings convened and more than 200 projects in operation alone in 2005-2006. Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar explained that this is put on hold to wait for ASEAN’s structure to be “crystallised under the ASEAN Charter”.
Slight differences in Myanmar also showed in the final communiqué over how strong the language on Myanmar should be. While all agreed that Myanmar should be “told off” for not paying heed to its ASEAN neighbours, ASEAN ministers were divided over the tone to take in the Myanmar paragraph.
The issue over Myanmar would probably continue to divide the ASEAN members and be a constant irritant. While some may hope that “putting Myanmar in the spot” and “giving Myanmar “both time and political space to deal with its complex challenges” may result in “voluntary withdrawal” of Myanmar from ASEAN, it appeared unlikely as Myanmar after a “barrage of criticisms” broke its silence and denied “snubbing ASEAN envoy over democratization process”. Myanmar Director-General of ASEAN, Aung Bwa said that the Myanmarese government could not accord the special envoy (Syed Hamid Albar) a “warm welcome” because the timing of the visit was wrong. He added “We have not sidelined ASEAN. It is just that at the time of the visit we were moving to the new capital…”.
ARF to issue statement on disaster management (The Jakarta Post, 25 July 2006)
Thai FM wants ASEAN to play key role in Burmese issue (BBC News/Bernama, 25 July 2006)
ASEAN delays plan on permanent representatives (Japan Economic Newswire, 25 July 2006)
ASEAN puts on hold question of Permanent Representatives (Bernama, 25 July 2006)
Asean finally calls out Burma (Bangkok Post, 26 July 2006)
Asean to speed up integration; Ministers plan to achieve a strong community by 2015 instead of 2020 (The Business Times, Singapore, 26 July 2006)
Visa-free travel within Asean (The Star, 26 July 2006)
Halt the fighting, says Asean (The Star, 26 July 2006)
Only two have ratified treaty on disaster aid (The Star, 27 July 2006)