The annual summit of the ten-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) wrapped up in Thailand at the weekend. The leaders of the regional bloc called for urgent cooperation to tackle the global financial crisis.
Regional leaders at this year's ASEAN summit in Thailand
The three key pillars of ASEAN are political and security cooperation, economic cooperation, and socio-cultural cooperation. These are now enshrined in a new Charter that also promotes human rights.
At the summit, the Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was chairing, said the region was witnessing a new era: “We gather here for the first ASEAN under a new ASEAN Charter which, together with the plans of action for the development of all three pillars of the ASEAN community, serves as a blueprint for our common future. Most importantly, ASEAN will put people first in its vision, in its policies and in its action plans.”
This year, the focus was clearly on trade and economics and how to solve the region’s financial woes rather than on regional security and human rights that have dominated past summits.
No protectionist policies
The global recession has hit the region’s export sectors very hard and there is rising unemployment. Nonetheless, the ASEAN leaders vowed to avoid adopting protectionist policies in their final statement.
Earlier this year, ASEAN finance ministers agreed with China, Japan and South Korea to expand currency swap arrangements to almost 100 billion euros and to make them available to countries facing balance of payments problems.
Last Friday, ASEAN also signed a free trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand. Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean was upbeat: “The principles are very simple, market access will be improved and by the conclusions of the agreements some 96 percent of tariff lines will have been eliminated.”
Strengthening economic integration
Meanwhile, ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said it was important to strengthen economic integration: “We’re talking about economic community with ASEAN, with no barriers, ASEAN with one market, ASEAN with one investment areas, and that is moving forward.”
But Surin ruled out any moves towards a community similar to the European Union, saying it was ASEAN’s “inspiration” but not its model.
At the summit, the region’s foreign ministers failed to agree on a proposed human rights body for a grouping that would include military-ruled Myanmar. But they did decide that Rohingya boat people who have recently been arriving on the shores of Southeast Asia be sent back to Myanmar.
Step forward for human rights
A meeting between civil society groups and government leaders to debate human rights went ahead. However, there was a standoff over activists from Myanmar and Cambodia attending and they were instead called for a separate meeting with the Thai prime minister.
Debbie Stothardt, spokesperson for the Alternative ASEAN network, was generally positive about the meeting: “It was a step forward but we are in a region where we are desperately trying to play catch up with basic international norms and we hope that this is part of an ongoing process and not just a one off anomaly.”
In his closing comments, the Thai Premier Abhisit, called on Myanmar’s military government to cooperate with the United Nations and to make sure all political parties can campaign in the general elections when they are held in 2010.