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ASEAN Matters? – Charting ahead with looming issues over Myanmar, Timor Leste and the UN bid

Updated On: Apr 21, 2006

ASEAN Foreign Ministers held a retreat meeting in Bali from 19-20 April 2006.

Top on the agenda of this meeting was the ASEAN Charter.  The ASEAN Eminent Persons Group (EPG) responsible for charting the future direction of ASEAN and the nature of the ASEAN Charter met for their 3rd time in Bali just a day before the arrival of the Foreign ministers. 

The ASEAN Charter will serve as a legal and institutional framework; defining the rights and obligations of member states, giving ASEAN a legal basis for its standings which would greatly enhance ASEAN’s role and responsibilities in international affairs.  The move to draft a charter for ASEAN is seen as significant for the next stage of its development, at which ASEAN can act more decisively and more expeditiously than in the past.  Several key recommendations were raised, including strengthening the role of the ASEAN secretary-general and a wider range of decision-making mechanisms.  Chairman of the EPG on the Draft of the ASEAN Charter Tan Sri Musa said the EPG was looking into the practicality and implications of several options to best deal with cases of non-conformity of the charter by member countries, including sanctions and suspension of membership. 

Despite former Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas’ rejection of the notion that the ASEAN Charter will be a compromise constitution, observers believe the Charter will not radically change the way ASEAN has conducted its business for the past 38 years.  The policy of non-interference and consensus building among member countries, for example, will still be an integral part of the ASEAN way in dealing with contentious issues.

If adopted by ASEAN leaders, the charter will also reaffirm all previous agreements and make them legally binding, but only where appropriate.  This allowance has been criticised as a compromise to ensure the charter's accepted by all member countries.

Political observers warn that such a loose arrangement may not be good enough for ASEAN's Western partners if it applies to controversial issues such as human rights violations in Myanmar. The ASEAN Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN-ISIS) met with the EPG, presenting recommendations for an ASEAN Court of Justice to be established within the region.  Moreover, the group also said that ASEAN should establish an ASEAN Peace and Reconciliation Council (APRC) to help the General Council for ASEAN Community in the areas of conflict-prevention, conflict-resolution and post-conflict peace-building. The proposed ASEAN Charter is crucial to help the regional grouping maintain its relevance in the coming decades.  Singapore Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar, said that given the present political and economic environment, the regional grouping will be marginalised if it fails to integrate faster and stay competitive. 

Also top on the agenda for the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting was Myanmar.  In the last few months, there is growing impatience in the region over Myanmar's failure to introduce democratic reform and release pro-democracy leaders as ASEAN’s struggle to achieve a consensus on how to push Myanmar to reform, hampered by its long-standing policy of non-interference in member states' domestic affairs. Myanmar's poor reputation is an embarrassment to ASEAN, and an impediment to stronger trade ties with markets in the European Union and the United States, both of which are demanding Myanmar put an end to abuses.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar briefed his counterparts on his disappointing trip to Myanmar last month as ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar. Many observers considered the trip a failure because he was unable to meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other important figures in the country's democratic reform process.

Meanwhile, Asean Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong said the grouping should work with China and India to persuade Myanmar to reform since the regional powerhouses are major trading partners of Myanmar and have stronger economic leverage.

While some ASEAN leaders say its time to take a firm stand on Myanmar, some analysts speculate Myanmar might grow tired with the criticism from its neighbours over democracy and human rights issues and choose to quit ASEAN.  The lack of consensus on how to approach Myanmar within ASEAN itself was again highlighted with the failure of the foreign ministers in formulating a common strategy after two days of meeting in Bali

Meanwhile, Myanmar weighs heavy on Thailand’s United Nations secretary-general bid.  Critics of caretaker deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai fault him for initiating a diplomatic push when he was foreign minister to solve Burma's political stalemate that ultimately failed. ASEAN is the only group to have come out in support of Surakiart.

Newcomer Timor-Leste has been making moves to join ASEAN since last July, but some complications are blocking Timor Leste's entry into the Asean.  Among them, Asean's policy of non-interefence, which allows a member state the right to agree to or reject any new membership based on the non-interference policy. Myanmar has flatly rejected Timor-Leste's membership with Asean, linking President Gusmao's good relationship with the Myanmar opposition movement of Aung San Suu Kyi in the past. 

Sources:

Non- Conforming Asean Members To Be Dealt With (Bernama, 19 April 2006)

ASEAN Charter works on bolstering powers of secretary-general (The Jakarta Post, 19 April 2006)

ASEAN should establish Court of Justice: Think tank (The Jakarta Post, 19 April 2006)

The ASEAN charter: Its importance and content (The Jakarta Post 18 April 2006)

Asean officials get to work on draft charter (The Straits Times, 18 April 2006)

Review of Asean's practice of consensus (The Straits Times, 19 April, 2006)

Time to 'rethink and remake Asean' (The Straits Times, 20 April 2006)

ASEAN Charter will be bold, visionary and practical: Jayakumar (Channel NewsAsia, 19 April 2006)

New ASEAN Charter won't be a compromise: drafters (Channel NewsAsia, 18 April 2006)

Myanmar report tops SE Asian minister meeting (Reuters, 19 April 2006)

ASEAN ministers meet amid growing impatience over Myanmar (The Jakarta Post, 19 April 2006)

Hamid: Be firm on Myanmar (The Star, 18 April 2006)

Surakiart's UN bid on Asean agenda (The Bangkok Post, 18 April 2006)

Timor Leste Must Wait To Gain Entry Into Asean, Says Thailand (Bernama, 17 April 2006)