What is ASEAN?

By Kanbawza Win | June 16, 2011

The international community who are not so familiar with the acronym of ASEAN may be wondering what it stands for? While the standard joke among the informed, floating around is an Association of Southeast Asia Authoritarian Nations. Perhaps it is partly true now that the Burmese Junta’s representative with its waving Gaung Baung (Burmese headdress usually wear by dignitaries to prove that they are no longer in uniforms) will soon be chairing this Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Nothing has changed in Burma except that instead of the soldier’s helmet they wear Gaung Baung.

The Burmese Generals have plenty of rationale and hypothesis in chairing the group. Vietnam and Laos, under the iron grip of communist-ruled governments since the mid-1970s have a similar election system, and Brunei, an absolute monarchy, appear far from opening up to political change. People’s Republic of Laos had a tightly controlled election for its national assembly and there was no hint of an opposition. The same in Vietnam as last national assembly election (May 22nd ) demonstrated and while other ASEAN members like Cambodia and Singapore are largely one-party, authoritarian states. The simple logic being, if the Singapore’s supremo, Harry Lee, resigned and take on the chairperson of Government Investment Team (whose salary, if not power are much more than the Head of State) and control the country from behind, why shouldn’t Than Shwe control Burma from behind? Beside there is an ample of evidence of his previous predecessor Ne Win with his Burmese Socialist Programme Party. Thailand’s democracy has been hampered by military interference setting the world record of 18 military coups, 23 military governments and 9 military-dominated governments since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.  The Indonesian people are still struggling to defend their freedom, and the country is not yet a democracy except in name.

So when Burma launched its sham election, which is neither free nor fair, but surely with the democracy facade, ASEAN eulogise it, in view of the fact the group can now legally continue to exploit the country’s human and natural resources. For after all this is ASEAN’s Constructive Engagement part of the Asian value of putting the economic well being of the elite first. The existing systems of ASEAN are all working in favour of the Burmese military dominated regime.  

Logically Burma is looking for full support from its ASEAN member states and has a keen interest in chairing in 2014.  ASEAN has been increasingly very important for Burma’s authoritarian government in order to support the attempts to counter international condemnation of its violation of human rights and democracy in the country. But according to the charter, the chairmanship of ASEAN is following the principle of alphabetical order but it is not automatic: ASEAN needs to get consensus on whether it accepts Burma’s request or delays the chairmanship of Burma. The 18th ASEAN Summit decided to form an assessment team to see whether Burma is ready to chair ASEAN in 2014. The report of the assessment will be submitted and presented in the next ASEAN Summit in Bali, in September 2011, where the real test of ASEAN mentality will become vivid.

The international community knows that ASEAN has been very weak in advocating democracy and human rights as these countries have little or no commitment to democracy. On the other hand there is a big brother China, whose authoritarian system has driven up the economy to the core of global competition where freedom is only allowed in so far it has economic benefits. Therefore to move the issue democracy and human rights in ASEAN forward seems impossible because most ASEAN member don’t see its political and economic benefits. So if Burma is awarded the chair, it will be of no surprise to anyone else and proves beyond doubt that ASEAN Charter is just a paper tiger.

After the Cold War, security is no longer a relevant issue but that economic integration is moving forward and the countries are being pressured to open their national economies by giving more freedom to the people. But freedom of expression and movement is a pre requisite to build a regional economy, hence human rights comes only after the economy. So it is a logical conclusion that the issue of human rights is nothing more than a document in this part of the world. It can be concluded that ASEAN has been deliberately abandoning the human rights issue as no serious effort has been taken to develop mechanisms to protect migrant workers, for example, the increasing number of cases of violence against migrant workers tells us that regional economic integration is not intended for people’s wellbeing.

Even further the ASEAN economic integration has not resulted in an increase in living standards of the people. People get no benefit from trade, though ASEAN countries have for so long been enjoying the benefits of trade. However it is more challenging now, as the many problems arising from trade impact seriously on the lives of the people. Some ASEAN countries like Thailand and Malaysia have been under serious criticism because of lack of protection on the rights of migrant workers. Instead ASEAN sit together to talk about forest fire smoke; for the simple reason that it dared not to talk about civil war in the region as the region being the site of a growing arms trade. The more ASEAN countries have democratic movements calling for the protection of human rights and democracy, the more ASEAN countries will see the economy no longer as an economy in itself.  Meanwhile domestic industries are paralysed because of global trade and the opening of the domestic markets.

In Indo China countries especially in Burma and to a certain extent in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia human rights violations are gross, extraordinary and extra-judicial crimes. It happened in the past and is still happening today. This violation occurs in two ways: first, the state apparatus has sponsored and further actively involved and directed violence, attacking civil society. Secondly, that the state has manipulated the culture and the nationalist spirit to control society and to seek justification for committing the violence. The authority has been governed in such ways and the institutions being set up as to protect the ruling elite, to discriminate against the people and to cover crimes committed by the state office. The violence has involved the state apparatus, groups of people, civil organisations, the law, the policy, and the regulation. Thus on the one hand there are thousands of victims suffering from violence while on the other hand there are people who are responsible for the crimes. The most responsible person has not yet been punished and some of them got light sentences or were just simply exempted from the accusation. This ineffectiveness in tackling human rights violations come along with high rates of poverty, corruption, weak government initiatives, the culture of impunity and fragile politics.

ASEAN leaders deliberately tends to forget that to promote democracy for then it would mean that they must ensures and protects the civil and political rights of the people – democracy in substance is more than just the procedure of voting. Substantial democracy means an acknowledgement to the person, organisation or party who genuinely represents the people, and not to exclude them from the political process as what Burma has done to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Lamentably ASEAN have not yet developed any ASEAN organ in defending humanity against poverty and protecting human rights in the region or devise any strategy in dealing with human rights issues and could not comprehend to initiate a task force on the human rights situation in Burma being themselves human right violators in varying degrees even though it have reluctantly taken some initiatives in humanitarian affairs during the cyclone Nargis.
Just before the 18th ASEAN summit began in Jakarta, the US sent an urgent message to Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines it would be difficult to envisage any US president attending the East Asia Summit there in 2014 if the puppet regime of Thein Sein to be the chair. The participation of Western leaders at the inaugural expanded East Asia Summit in October in Bali has been secured and President Barack Obama has promised to come to Indonesia to take part after the conclusion of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Honolulu, but if Burma became the chair there is the possibility that leaders from the US and other Western countries may opt out of ASEAN and related forums. Burma has put ASEAN in a spot in its quest for international legitimacy. It was easier when things used to be black and white, between the military and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but the Junta have skilfully faded to grey, and using this strategy put the ASEAN in the tight rope. ASEAN like many of the transnational corporations that is blind to exploit the human and natural resources of the country and has been be fooled into thinking that the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s is a progress for after it had staged sham elections but still holds more than 2,000 political prisoners. Unwittingly it has become a laughingstock of the intergovernmental forums.
Currently ASEAN’s main purpose was to build a common concern over security, the current barometer being the Spratly Island dispute where several ASEAN members such as Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei have their claim vis a vis China and even yesterday China`s Communist Party Organ News released a vile threat to Vietnam to compromise of finding themselves on the losing side and reminded Vietnam’s history with China. What can ASEAN do, in view of the fact that Thein Sein has just announced its strategic partnership with China betraying the collective stand of ASEAN?  Hence it seems that ASEAN dream of the group’s vision beyond 2015 of an “ASEAN Community in a Global Community of Nations” is just as hollow as it heading to be a big international joke. How can they compare themselves with rules based organizations as EU, NATO, NAFTA, and APEC or even with the Latin American countries of OAS or the African countries of OAU? Their utterance of for a common ASEAN position on global issues, an enhanced capacity to respond to regional and world issue seems to be just a smoke in thin air.
Instead, if ASEAN really cares about the long term stability and democratic rule then supporting a Commission of Enquiry on Burma would be a logical step to ending ongoing abuses and impunity in Burma and ASEAN along with the international community should be watching closely for substantial reforms that will promote national unity and reconciliation, good governance and transparency in Burma. Only and only then they will not be another Arab League that endeavour  to suffocate the Arab spring fearful less the Arab mass may enjoy the democracy summer. If not ASEAN autumn will soon lead to dictatorship winter with a freezing cold of gross human rights violations, extra judiciary killings, ethnic cleansing rape as a weapon and other unimagined atrocities unheard in this universe. 

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