Why is draft of ASEAN Charter being kept from public?

Alecks P. Pabico
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
10 Nov 07

Why is a document like the proposed charter of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) being kept from the citizens of the countries that consist the regional organization?

Because it wants to formalize its existence, the ASEAN decided to codify its agreements in a Charter, and in 2004 crafted the Vientiane Action Program, a six-year plan leading to the establishment of an ASEAN Community in 2010. During the ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur in 2005, the heads of states of the member-countries appointed an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to draft recommendations for the Charter. Former President Fidel Ramos was the appointee from the Philippines.

When the EPG’s terms of reference expired in December 2006, a High Level Task Force (HLTF) was appointed in January 2007 to write the actual Charter. Apparently, a final draft was completed last October 20. Now, the ASEAN wants the Charter signed during the Singapore summit this coming November 20.

Civil-society groups in the ASEAN’s 10 member-countries have been criticizing the lack of transparency in the crafting of the said document. Very few citizens of ASEAN, even their parliaments, are in fact aware of the Charter. In fact, NGOs have mostly been responsible for the scant media projection it has been getting across the region.

Download a scanned copy of the ASEAN Charter forwarded to the PCIJ by a source privy to the process.

There is also concern over the legitimacy of governments that will sign the charter. The Thai government now, for instance, came to power via a coup. With a recently ratified Constitution, the current Prime Minister is constrained from signing as he does not have the authority. To address this matter, the ASEAN has reportedly transmitted the draft Charter to the Thai Parliament so it can deliberate on the issue if the prime minister can be authorized to sign it.

Burma (or Myanmar as the military junta ruling the country prefers to call it) is however not being discussed in the ASEAN in the same way as it is doing with Thailand’s case.

But civil society organizations and trade unions from across Southeast Asia are trying to push Burma into the agenda, calling on ASEAN leaders to postpone the signing of the Charter following the Burmese junta’s recent violent crackdown on peaceful protests that included thousands of Buddhist monks.

At the conclusion of the 3rd ASEAN Civil Society Conference (ACSC III) held in Singapore from November 2-4, all participants agreed that the current political crisis in Burma must first be resolved in accordance with basic human rights standards before ASEAN’s leaders can sign a Charter for what they envision to be a “caring, sharing community.” (see ACSC III’s Singapore Declaration)

They also urged ASEAN to be transparent by disclosing the draft ASEAN Charter for meaningful public consultations and discussions, and guarantee a democratic referendum process at the national level to allow the peoples in each country to give direct mandate to the said document.

The groups even found an ally in a top ASEAN official who stressed the important role of civil society in transforming the regional institution and governance into a “social ASEAN” that embodies social work and community building processes.

The ASEAN, MC Abad Jr., director for the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community at the ASEAN Secretariat based in Jakarta, told conference participants is “a social construct that embodies the shared ideas and consciousness among the member-states.” He said the on-going process of community building in the ASEAN through the formulation of the ASEAN Charter should involve civil society, calling on them to “invest in the process of building a regional governance institution that is inclusive, resilient and enlightened.”

ASEAN member-countries include Brunei Darussalam, Kingdom of Cambodia, Republic of Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Union of Myanmar, Republic of the Philippines, Republic of Singapore, Kingdom of Thailand and Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.

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