Activists seek commitment to political openness

Amy Kazmin
Financial Times
7 October 2003

South-East Asian rights activists and academics on Monday warned that the attempt by the Association of South East Asian Nations to deepen economic integration and attract investment was unlikely to succeed unless accompanied by greater political openness and a strong commitment to the rule of law.

“Good governance, inclusiveness and democracy are some of the prerequisites needed . . . if Asean people and countries are to succeed in their endeavours,” said Landry H. Subianto, an academic at Indonesia’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Asean leaders will sign a deal this week to forge an economic community where goods, services, investment and skilled workers can move freely through the region by 2020. Leaders plan to step up security co-operation and cultural interaction.

But rights groups say the initiatives will be at risk if the region’s governments – which include a military dictatorship, authoritarian regimes and democracies of varying degree – fail to embrace basic principles of human rights.

“Asean talks about wanting to be an economic community similar to the European community,” said Gandhi Ambalam, of the Open Singapore Center [Mr Ambalam is also Head, Public Relations and International Affairs of the Singapore Democrats]. “Within the Asean community of nations, the human rights record needs immediate addressing.

“They talk about economic integration, economic community and security, but without openness and transparency, how can we talk of security?”

Asean officials are concerned that investors relocating from the region’s higher-cost production areas, including Singapore and Malaysia, are drifting outside the region rather than moving to less developed member countries such as Burma, Cambodia and Laos.

Ong Keng Yong, Asean’s secretary-general, appealed to foreign companies this week to invest in Cambodia and Laos, which are eligible for preferential tariffs owing to their status as least developed countries, and also in Burma, currently subject to US sanctions including an import ban. “[Burma] may be a political hot potato, but it’s still a potato,” he told business people.

But Debbie Stothard, an activist with the Alternative Asean Network on Burma, said the unpredictable environment created by the junta, and other regimes with little public accountability, would remain a hindrance to capital inflows.

The rights activists called on Asean to cast aside its principle of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of others, a doctrine that has kept the region from playing a constructive role in resolving problems that have repercussions for the image and security of South-east Asia, such as the political situation in Burma.

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