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Out of shape? ASEAN street lantern, downtown Hua Hin. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Out of shape? ASEAN street lantern, downtown Hua Hin. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

The rhetoric used at the latest summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations risks generating false expectations of the 10-member grouping developing into a nascent European Union. Certainly, progress was made on economic integration, but such issues as dealing with Myanmar remain unresolved, which sends a mixed message to the United States as it ponders its engagement in the region. – Simon Roughneen

HUA HIN, Thailand – While the bland regimen of inter-governmental summits does not usually spark juxtaposition with, say, Bob Dylan, there was a mocking appropriateness to the American singer’s The Times They Are A Changin’ ringing through the lobby at the Hua Hin Sheraton, one of the venues for 15th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit held over the past weekend.

Times might be changing across the 10-state regional bloc [1], but whether this means lofty goals, like implementing an ASEAN community by 2015, will be realized any time soon still seems unlikely. Outgoing ASEAN chair and Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, spoke of “realizing a people-centered ASEAN community”, but a good post-summit press sound bite does not easily translate into a viable policy platform.

Indeed, such grandiose language risks generating false expectations of making ASEAN appear more like a nascent European Union (EU)-style body than is the case. Walter Lohman, head of the Asia section of the Heritage Foundation, a US-based conservative think-tank said, “At best, ASEAN economic integration will mean a broad lowering of trade and investment barriers.”

However, even the wheels of that project are spinning in the political sands. With Thailand and the Philippines failing to cut a deal on rice trade over the weekend, a bilateral roadblock has been raised that will impede the goal of an ASEAN free-trade area by January 1, 2010.

In what was meant to be the highlight of the meeting, ASEAN inaugurated a new Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). This features a majority of government appointees, and can only promote human rights as a concept, with no enforcement mechanism to take countries to task for human-rights abuses. Government-centered, rather than people-centered, some said on the meeting’s sidelines.

Such a low expected yield does not augur well for growth toward an ASEAN community. “The idea of an economic community is an ideal, and, given the implementation of other mechanisms such as the human-rights community, a goal that will not be reached in any substantive form,” said Bridget Welsh of the Singapore Management University.

Some of the changes in ASEAN seem retrograde. According to the final ASEAN summit statement, the grouping “had extensive, open and fruitful discussions under the theme of ‘Enhancing Connectivity, Empowering Peoples’.” Yet some people were in fact disempowered at the meeting, symbolic of the millions disenfranchised across the diverse region.

A scheduled meeting between heads of government and civil society groups from across ASEAN was scuttled, as five governments – Singapore, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Myanmar – refused to meet the delegates selected for the ASEAN People’s Forum, a gathering of non-governmental leaders from across the region, and instead put forward government-appointed candidates.

The Myanmar representatives were said to include two former junta anti-narcotics officials, according to Myanmar human-rights activist Khin Ohn Mar, who was selected to represent her country by the ASEAN People’s Forum.

Substantial differences

There are still substantial political and economic differences between ASEAN countries. Singapore is an authoritarian city-state, but one of the most modern economies in the world. Indonesia is a vast, poly-religious democracy stretched over 17,000 islands. Thailand remains politically divided and unstable, with a Muslim rebellion in its south, partly paralleled by the Philippines, whose politics remain mired in the clutches of a wealthy and connected oligarchy. Newer ASEAN members, such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, are among Asia’s poorest.

Such disparities go against the grain of economic integration experiences elsewhere, such as in the EU, where political and economic gaps between countries must be narrowed before a candidate country can join the club. Still, the impression given at the meeting was of an ASEAN – and an Asia – on the up and up.

After the ASEAN members held their series of meetings, the proceedings moved to include heads of government from Asia’s giants: China, Japan and India, as well as Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. The ASEAN secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan, spoke in faux-diligent terms about “not disappointing the international community” by “undertaking our heavy responsibility to pull the world economy along”.

China and India will both soon launch free-trade areas with ASEAN, and pan-Asian cooperation has been stepped up in areas such as currency support and infrastructure funding. On Monday, Malaysia and New Zealand signed a free-trade agreement that is hoped will increase their US$1.8 billion in bilateral trade. Under the agreement to come into effect in 2010, Malaysia will eliminate import taxes on 10,293 products by 2016. New Zealand will end import tariffs on 7,238 products imported from Malaysia by 2016.

Statements released after the summit suggested that Asia needed to boost domestic consumption and lessen export reliance on the debt-addled US and European consumer markets.

In July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the US was “back” in Southeast Asia. Despite his statements suggesting that East Asia “should lead the world”, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama wants the US involved in his East Asia Community (EAC) brainchild, perhaps after realizing that his leadership claims might be taken as something of a challenge in Washington. He might also have broached the idea to needle China, which has its own ideas on how to take Asian economic development forward.

In any case, his about-turn might be a more realistic assessment of the numbers – despite the debt-laden US economy. Arpitha Bykere is senior Asia analyst at Roubini Global Economics – which is run by Nouriel Roubini, the “Dr Doom” who predicted the 2008 economic crisis. Bykere said that Asia would remain economically dependent on the US for at least five to 10 years. “In 2008, US and EU consumption amounted to US$19 trillion, while Asian consumption was less than US$5 trillion.”

The first US-ASEAN summit will take place in Singapore in November, the same week that Obama meets his Chinese counterpart, President Hu Jintao. While economic issues will doubtless dominate the agenda, both meetings should give a good indication of international policy towards military-run Myanmar going forward.

Rights abuses

As ever, Myanmar was a key ASEAN summit issue – at least to those watching from the outside. Aside from the Japanese Foreign Ministry, whose spokesperson gave a fairly detailed account of what Myanmar Prime Minister General Thein Sein told the ASEAN/Japan summit, there was scant official comment on Myanmar. The country, known also as Burma, received a mere two-line mention in the final ASEAN chair’s statement.

This despite pro-democracy Aung San Suu Kyi being sentenced to an extra 18 months house arrest on August 11 for breaking the terms of her previous incarceration for hosting an unregistered American guest who swam, apparently unannounced and undetected by junta security, across the lake to Suu Kyi’s Yangon home.

The sentencing at the time prompted a relatively strong statement from the Thai premier, in his role as ASEAN chair, when he asked that the sentence be revoked. Only two months has passed, Suu Kyi is still in detention, and many at the meeting questioned the official reticence on the issue.

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya told the media at the summit that “there has been some progress recently, with Suu Kyi’s letter to Myanmar President General Than Shwe followed by two meetings with a junta representative, and another meeting between Suu Kyi and foreign diplomats”.

Yet she is still under house arrest and more than 2,000 political prisoners remain in jail. Myanmar’s flawed 2008 constitution will be the bedrock for elections slated for 2010, leaving the military in command, irrespective of what result the elections throw up. Meanwhile, the eastern borderlands are tense, as the junta and ethnic militias gear up for a potentially-devastating new round of civil conflict, all in the name of the Myanmar regime centralizing control ahead of the elections.

This has the potential to send new legions of refugees into Thailand, China and perhaps elsewhere in the region, and could perhaps undermine current and future investment plans by Southeast Asian and other states in Myanmar, which remains under Western investment sanctions.

Despite the obvious threat to regional security posed by Myanmar, and the rhetorical assent promoting democracy and human rights in the ASEAN charter, old-school “non-interference” in the internal affairs of other countries is clearly still standard operating procedure in the grouping.

Thai premier Abhisit, for one, seemed resigned to the prospect of renewed fighting in Myanmar. When questioned on this topic by reporters after his meeting with Thein Sein, he said, “Thailand stands ready to do its humanitarian duty, as always,” when the inevitable flight of refugees from Myanmar enters Thai territory.

It thus appears that ASEAN has regressed to its old habits on Myanmar, perhaps in part due to the new US policy which will combine engagement through talks with continued sanctions. Abhisit told the media at the summit that “we always felt that engagement is the right approach” – even though the US and the EU retain sanctions on the Myanmar junta over its abysmal rights record.

ASEAN let Thein Sein off the hook at the meeting, and appears to be coasting on the back of a misinterpreted US policy shift. “How can the new US approach vindicate ASEAN when ASEAN’s engagement, whatever you call it – constructive, flexible or forward – has proven to be ineffective?” asked Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Despite the reality that the US has not changed its policy on Myanmar, the message is getting blurred. There may be an impact on Southeast Asia, beyond Myanmar, where despite summit pledges to connect ASEAN peoples and promote human rights, the reality remains disconnected. That’s seen in authorities in Vietnam jailing reporters and clamping down on religious minorities.

Cambodia is implementing restrictive new press laws, and Malaysia continues to use a draconian colonial-era Internal Security Act when it wishes to restrict political protest and freedom of expression. A spokesman for the US Embassy in Bangkok told Asia Times Online that the US “supports the establishment of the AICHR, and welcomes the new focus on human rights in ASEAN” – despite the new commission’s circumscribed mandate.

With US regional influence in the balance, if not on the wane, it is unclear how the Obama administration can or will leverage its Asia policy. The November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and ASEAN meetings should reveal whether the US will base its Asia policy on getting its own economic house in order.

This could mean putting political issues on the back burner, as per Obama’s recent refusal to meet the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, for fear of offending a China that is becoming increasingly intertwined with the US economy and its future sustainability. But Obama’s inchoate approach to foreign policy in the region is starting to stoke criticism.

“The Obama administration has failed to effectively signal that it genuinely cares about human rights in Asia,” said academic Welsh.

Note 1. ASEAN comprises Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia. Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Simon Roughneen is a roving freelance journalist. He has reported from over 20 countries and is currently based in Southeast Asia.

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