Model or muddle? – The Irrawaddy


The human rights fallout rolls on in the aftermath of the recent 15th Asean Summit held in Hua Hin, Thailand.

Launching into a defense of the 10-state regional bloc, which includes Burma, Kishore Mahbubani, a former

CSO reps revisit the Asean summit (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

CSO reps revisit the Asean summit (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Singaporean diplomat who is now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, told an audience in Bangkok this week, “Asean has moved forward on human rights over the past 10 years, while the US has gone backwards, and now lacks the moral authority it once had.”

Asean launched a new Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights at the summit. However, despite giving formal recognition to human rights, expectations are slim that the new body will do anything to protect people from abuses or punish perpetrators. The Commission’s terms of reference merely allow its mainly government-appointed members to promote human rights.

Regional civil society groups are still angered by the refusal of five Asean governments to meet with NGO representatives as scheduled on Oct. 23.The governments of Burma, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines vetoed the representatives chosen by the Asean People’s Forum (APF), with the Singapore government stating that governments were entitled to select a civil society representative for the meeting.

Speaking in Bangkok on Thursday on behalf of the APF, Chanida Bamford said that any deal to allow governments to handpick civil society delegates was not communicated to the APF. The fracas was widely reported in international media.

Mahbubani criticized coverage of the recent Asean Summit, saying the negative far outweighed the positive.

“Asean is the most ridiculed organization in the world,” he said, adding that, “Asean is also a success story, even compared with the European Union.”

The EU has a GDP of US $17 trillion, compared with Asean’s total $1trillion. Asean is often compared negatively to the EU, which verges closer on becoming a federal state with each passing year.

Mahbubani, the author of “The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East,” is well-known for his view that the West misunderstands and resists the re-emergence of Asia.

Goldman-Sachs predicts that China and India will be the world’s first and second-largest economies by 2050—marking a return to the economic and political prominence the two countries enjoyed prior to the Industrial Revolution in the West.

He said that Asean is a model of regional integration that the rest of Asia should follow, asking why China, Japan and South Korea do not forge a northeast Asian equivalent. He noted that intra-Asean trade, has more than doubled to $188 billion between 2002-2006, and that Asean trade with the rest of the world went from around $350 billion to $700 billion over the same period.

With US President Barack Obama meeting Asean heads of government —likely to include Burma Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein—in Singapore next week, Mahbubani believes this to be a signal that the US wants to regain influence in the region, in response to the trade and investment links fostered by China. A China-Asean free trade area comes into being on Jan. 1, 2010.

Countering criticisms that many Asean countries pay lip service to human rights and democratic norms, Mahbubani said that as Asia’s middle classes expand, the type of rights-oriented democracies that have emerged in the West will be emulated in Asia, as more people seek a greater say in legislation and more personal and political rights and freedoms.

However, some feel that this may be a long way off. Indonesian representative Yuwon Wahyuningrum of Forum-Asia was permitted to attend the Asean meeting, but walked out in protest when her five counterparts were vetoed.

Speaking in Bangkok, she said, “We still want to know why these governments refused to allow the elected civil society groups into the meeting,” adding that she saw the act as a contravention of the Asean Charter, which pledged itself to be “people-centered.”

“The Asean summit was apparently about enhancing connectivity and empowering people [in reference to the title of the final summit communique issued by the Thai Government, which hosted the gathering]. But given the way we were treated, as representatives of Asean citizens, the rhetoric seems empty and meaningless,” she said.

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