Encouraging ASEAN

Three primary issues emerged this week in Kuala Lumpur: First, ASEAN confronted member state Myanmar over its human rights violations, marking what may be the first such criticism levied against a member. In the past ASEAN has overlooked and defended Myanmar’s junta even as human rights violations ignited international protests and damaged ASEAN credibility. But the patience of the other members has run out. This editorial in the Jakarta Post suggests that ASEAN could suspend Myanmar’s membership if abuses continue and that other members back their censure with action if the Myanmar junta remains obstinate. Second, tensions among Japan, China and South Korea came to the fore, with some criticizing the Japanese prime minister’s visits to a shrine that recognizes Japanese victims of World War II. The editorial suggests that ASEAN avoid becoming embroiled in this conflict and warns that uninvolved countries could suffer more than the conflicting parities. Finally, plans for the East Asia Community were initiated under Malaysian leadership. ASEAN anticipates that the community, including ASEAN members and some neighboring countries, will cooperate on trade and other issues. – YaleGlobal

Encouraging ASEAN

Thursday, December 15, 2005

During the annual ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur this week, including the ASEAN + 3 (China, Japan and South Korea) summit on Monday and the first East Asia Summit on Wednesday, there were at least three interesting issues: ASEAN reproaching Myanmar, the tension between Japan with China and South Korea, and the divergence of views on the modality of the East Asia Community.

Perhaps it is the first time in its 38-year history that the Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) leaders openly criticized another member about its human rights record. It was notable because ASEAN normally rigidly sticks to the principle of noninterference, plus human rights is a highly sensitive issue for many members of the regional grouping.

The leaders of the 10-member group in Kuala Lumpur on Monday in no uncertain terms told the Myanmar junta that its rights record was an embarrassment and demanded the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been detained virtually since 1990. They also called for the release of other political prisoners.

After years of defending the junta, often almost shamelessly, against repeated international outcry over its human rights record, while at the same time expecting a miracle that the military regime would eventually "repent", ASEAN leaders finally lost patience with and trust in the junta. Myanmar has seriously damaged ASEAN's international credibility with its brutal regime while its generals display absolutely no remorse and allow ASEAN to be continually embarrassed by its gross human rights violations.

This time ASEAN said enough was enough.

"We also called for the release of those placed under detention," Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said in a written statement after chairing the annual summit, which was also attended by Myanmar leader Gen. Soe Win.

It is not unthinkable that in the near future ASEAN will suspend Myanmar's membership if Gen. Soe Win and his compatriot generals continue to defy calls for change. The international community, meanwhile, is waiting for concrete results from Myanmar.

The regional leaders have set a precedent, although one day it could backfire against them if they do not follow through with action against any defiance from Myanmar's generals.

Meanwhile, with international media paying more attention to the hard feelings between Japan, China and South Korea, it was obvious that the legacies of World War II were haunting the Kuala Lumpur summit. Many people in this region are outraged by the attitude of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who adamantly refuses to stop visiting the Yasukini Shrine to pay homage to Japanese war victims, knowing full very well that China and South Korea find this totally unacceptable.

ASEAN should not allow itself to become a victim of other countries' disputes or conflict, especially when they are guests at an ASEAN function. If the dispute between Japan, China and South Korea is not settled amicably among themselves, other countries that have nothing to do with the dispute may suffer more than the conflicting parties. China and Japan have played, and expect to continue to play, a pivotal role in the sustainability of security in Asia, especially this part of it. It is in the interest of all that the two regional superpowers have harmonious relations.

ASEAN is on the way to realizing its ambitious goal of creating the ASEAN Community by 2020. When Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi hosted the first East Asia Summit on Wednesday, ASEAN leaders expected their guests from China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and India to help them accelerate the creation of the ASEAN Community. The East Asia summit will become a permanent part of the annual ASEAN summit.

Eventually it will be enlarged to become the East Asia Community (EAC) in which ASEAN hopes it will remain the driving force. In this context, the first priority should be the ASEAN Community while preparations for the EAC can proceed in parallel. However, it is understandable that the ASEAN guests have their own interests to look after and will try to influence the direction of ASEAN even from the onset.

In all, we congratulate Malaysia's leadership at the meeting and deem it a successful summit, hopefully successful not just in terms of ceremonial formality but also in substance.

© The Jakarta Post