South East Asian nations are preparing to take major steps towards forming a more integrated community at this week’s summit of leaders from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). But human rights activists wonder whether ASEAN leaders will be able to press fellow member Myanmar, also known as Burma, to take substantial steps towards democratic reform.
Human rights groups say the way ASEAN approaches Myanmar will be the test of its new charter
This weekend’s ASEAN summit comes as there are growing concerns about the impact of the global economic crisis.
The community, which encompasses a population of 570 million, is heavily dependent on income from exports, especially to the United States and Europe and is now facing sharp downturns.
Last weekend, ASEAN finance ministers, backed by Japan, South Korea and China, agreed to expand a pool of resources to some 100 billion euros to assist members during these troubled times.
New ASEAN Charter
This weekend’s summit, chaired by Thailand, is the first under a new ASEAN Charter that sets out rights and responsibilities and came into effect in December last year.
ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said the charter marked a new step for the region: “The world is taking ASEAN more seriously partly because we are living under the charter. In the international and Western concept to be living under a contract, under a charter, means a lot because it demands compliance.”
But human rights and civil society groups are reticent.
“There has been long running concern by civil society and activists alike that this charter doesn’t have teeth,” said Debbie Stothardt, the spokesperson for the Alternative ASEAN Network.
“But since it’s already here we have to make best use of it. That’s why we have produced a little briefer that updates what Burma has been doing since the charter came into force and the picture is not pretty at all.”
How will ASEAN approach Myanmar?
Human rights activists and ASEAN regional parliamentarians believe the key challenge for the summit will be how the leaders press Myanmar into taking steps towards political reform and end human rights abuses.
Lorenzo Tanada, the chair of the Philippine parliamentary human rights committee, said the “integrity of the organisation would be put into question if nothing was done with regard to Burma, especially with the 2010 elections around the corner. We know for a fact that these elections will be used by the junta to legitimatise itself.”
Altogether 24 documents are expected to be signed or adopted by the ASEAN leaders, foreign ministers and economic ministers attending the three-day meeting.
One key document is a roadmap for an ASEAN community by 2015. Others include a political-security community blue print, a document on ASEAN integration, and a statement on food security in the region.
ASEAN foreign ministers will also adopt documents covering the draft terms of reference of an ASEAN Human Rights Body, while ASEAN economic ministers are to sign documents related to trade and investment.