Sunday, December 14, 2008

[ASEAN Charter:] Silence raises questions of relevance

[ASEAN Charter:] Silence raises questions of relevance

Saturday December 13, 2008
Bangkok Post


The postponement of the 14th Asean summit, earlier scheduled for next week (Dec 15-17) in Thailand, raises questions about the relevance of the Asean charter to the current political, economic and security challenges the region faces.

The Asean foreign ministers therefore have to convene a special meeting on Monday to discuss the re-scheduling of the summit and other relevant matters, to shore up the waning confidence in this regional organisation and to celebrate the much-awaited charter at the Jakarta-based secretariat.

Within the region, there have been doubts that the Asean charter, to be spearheaded under the Thai chairmanship, would succeed in "revitalising a people-centred community and reinforcing human development and security for all the peoples of the region".

Even more doubtful is the prospect of the new organs envisaged by the charter, in particular the Asean human rights bodies - expected to be completed by the end of the Thai chairmanship next year. Critics fear that without substantive changes to the way Asean has been operating, the new organs would end up as decorative pieces put in the charter just to lure domestic and international attention.

Asean's relative silence towards the political bickering and airport siege in Thailand that spilled over to the point they could qualify as violations of human rights - apart from the fact that they caused the Asean summit to be postponed - indicates that the core policy of "non-interference" and "constructive engagement" is likely to be the order of the day.

Sunai Phasuk, coordinator of Human Rights Watch in Thailand, said Asean's silence on Thailand's case adds to the impression that the regional body is ineffective in dealing with human rights violations. Burma also would be a case in point.

"It is just a contradictory signal. Asean said the new Asean human rights mechanism will promote and protect the rights of the Asean peoples, but their bulwark non-interference principle certainly goes against the nature of these two human rights aspects, to begin with," said Mr Sunai.

Without any strong reaction from Asean, the grouping is seen as condoning such anti-democratic trends as the week-long takeover of Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports in Bangkok by protesters going under the banner of the People's Alliance for Democracy.

"Thailand and Burma are adequate test cases for the toothless Asean. The governments of Asean have preached what they cannot offer. But they need to show to the world that this region also has some effective mechanisms like what Africa has," he said.

Chulalongkorn University associate professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak shared a similar view. The Thai example and how Asean responded to it can be a precedent for countries like Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, as well as Asean dialogue partners including China, to cite for a future slide along an undemocratic path.

"What happened in Thailand has also affected the spirit of Asean, its efforts in creating a rule of law within the region. China considers our case a lesson. And it may be justified if it chooses to withhold a democratisation process for fear of political turbulence," said Mr Thitinan.

Other regional human rights bodies such as the Asia Human Rights Commission have also called for greater global attention to the political tension in Thailand, which has gone on for several months without any discernible reaction from domestic human rights bodies.

"Having vacillated on the 2006 coup, the international community cannot afford to let things go on without some meaningful intervention this time. If Thailand slips further backwards it will be to the detriment not only of its own but the entire region's. At a time that repressive anti-democratic forces are either making a comeback or strengthening their positions almost everywhere, Thailand cannot afford to be lost," the Hong Kong-based AHRC stated.

Members of the Asean civil society consider the charter a state-centric tool, being written by government officials without genuine, broad consultations with civic groups. The charter provides no institutionalised mechanisms, such as the NGO Consultative Status to the UN, in which a civil society can contribute to or comment on the decision-making process.

Pokpong Lawansiri, from Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia), said that to Asean leaders, the civil society's role is to be informed about decisions that are made, not to play any role in their making.

He added, however, that the regional body should take note that there has been increasing interest among civil society groups in seeing the association become more relevant and capable of handling issues that concern the peoples of the member countries - migrant workers and human trafficking, among others.

Pairoj Polphet, president of the Union of Civil Liberties, said the new government of Thailand must put the organisation of the Asean summit at the top of its priority list.

"As chairman of Asean under the new context of the charter, our ability to host the summit as soon as possible is a key message to not only the regional bloc but the international community that our political stability has been recovered."

Mr Pairoj added that civil society would not go against Asean cooperation projects but would like to have a say in regional affairs as they would affect people's lifestyles and well-being.

It is now in the hands of Asean officials and governments whether to shape the Asean human rights body (whose official name has yet to be created) to the high expectations people have of it.

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