ASEAN gets pummeled over Burma and Charter: Reports and analysis

Singapore Democrats
20 Nov 07

ASEAN adopts landmark charter, with watered-down human rights body to appease Myanmar
20 Nov 07

Southeast Asian leaders adopted Tuesday a landmark charter to integrate the region as a legal organization bound by one set of rules, but failed to include a mechanism for enforcing human rights.

The charter only calls for a new agency to review human rights among the members of the 40-year-old Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The document gives the body no powers to punish violators – an apparent diplomatic victory for military-ruled Myanmar, the most troublesome member of the 10-nation bloc.

Human rights occupies only a few paragraphs in the ASEAN Charter, whose main aim is to make the bloc a legal and rule-based body similar to that of the European Union.

It took 2 1/2 years to draft and it still needs to be ratified by member countries – through Cabinet decisions, referendums or parliamentary approval – before it becomes final.

10 leaders raised a toast of fruit juice and clinked glasses after signing the charter at their annual summit. The happy atmosphere belied the rough road the charter faces ahead.

“It should not detract from the fact that this is a very historic document in ASEAN’s growth,” said former Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, who helped draft the charter blueprint.

Philippines warned Monday that its Congress would be hard-pressed to ratify the charter unless Myanmar upholds the document’s principles of democracy and human rights and release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

ASEAN is facing intense pressure from the West to force Myanmar’s junta to allow democracy after its troops suppressed pro-democracy protests in September in a brutal crackdown that left at least 15 people dead.

Monday, the U.S. said ASEAN’s credibility and reputation were at stake because of Myanmar, and the EU imposed fresh sanctions on its junta, including an embargo on imports o timber, gems and metals.

ASEAN Charter accords a legal identity to ASEAN for international negotiations and transactions. It sets out a common set of rules for negotiations in trade, investment, environment and other fields. It also aims to turn Southeast Asia into a single market and production base with a free flow of goods, services, investment and capital.

While espousing human rights and democracy, the charter upholds ASEAN’s bedrock principle barring members from interfering in each other’s domestic affairs – an edict that Myanmar has invoked to parry criticism of its dismal human rights record and to prevent the human rights agency from having any teeth.

The charter dropped earlier recommendations to mention sanctions, including possible expulsion, in cases of serious breaches by member countries. It says that any such breaches would be referred to ASEAN heads of state for a final decision.

The charter calls for the continued observance of a 10-year-old treaty banning nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia and prohibits “all other weapons of mass destruction.”

ASEAN was founded during the Cold War years as an anti-communist coalition, evolving into a trade and political bloc. It consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Myanmar emerges unexpected victor of ASEAN leaders summit

20 Nov 07

The signing of the ASEAN charter, long anticipated as a moment of triumph, turned out to be a face-saving occasion with Myanmar the unexpected victor, analysts said.

‘Myanmar got everything it wanted,’ said Hiro Katsumata, an analyst at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. ‘It’s in a very comfortable position.’

Critics, who have long lamented the ineffectiveness of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) over four decades, acknowledged surprise that the body would cave in to such a degree after the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in September.

ASEAN’s kowtowing ‘wasn’t expected to go this far,’ Katsumata said. ‘What it shows is the long policy of non-interference in each other’s affairs, the ASEAN way, will continue as usual.’

‘This is a major victory for Myanmar,’ he added.

Complying with Myanmar’s objections, the ASEAN leaders late Monday called off a scheduled address by UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari to the 10 member countries plus China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who had arranged Gambari’s briefings, said Myanmar emphasized that Gambari, who visited the country four times, ‘should only report to the UN Security Council and not to ASEAN or the East Asia Summit.’

The charter makes ASEAN a legal entity, sets democracy as a goal, pledges to set up a human rights body, aims to turn the bloc into a single market by 2015, empowers the heads of state as the highest policy-making officials, prohibits nuclear energy and addresses climate change.

The lack of an effective enforcement mechanism, continuation of decision making by consensus and retention of the non-intervention tenet have been the focus of widespread criticism.

‘ASEAN has given the ruling junta carte blanche to do as they like,’ said Debbie Stothard, with the Bangkok-based Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma.

‘I’m deeply shocked,’ she said. ‘ASEAN is committing suicide.’

Since the violent crackdown, the Burmese generals have failed to take meaningful action toward a process of democratic reform within the country and towards ensuring against future human rights, said the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development.

‘The final text of the charter is a major victory for Myanmar,’ Katsumata said. As for ASEAN’s standing, ‘It doesn’t look good,’ he added.

The grouping has been counting on the charter to alter the long-held perception of many that it was only good for talk ‘without teeth.’

The geopolitical implications must also be considered, Katsumata said. ‘In no way can ASEAN put effective pressure on Myanmar and China certainly won’t.’

Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein told the leaders his country was ‘capable’ of handling the current problems and was already on the third of a seven-step roadmap to democracy.

Yangon is beginning to draft its constitution, he said, adding it would still take time because it has to hold consultations with all the ethnic groups.

The ASEAN leaders stressed the Myanmar government should work with the UN to open up a meaningful dialogue with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, release all political detainees, work toward a peaceful transition to democracy and address the economic difficulties faced by the people.

They leaders stressed that they will strive ‘to prevent the Myanmar issue from obstructing ASEAN’s integration efforts’ and the establishment of an ASEAN community.

Asean kowtows to Rangoon
20 Nov 07

Nine Southeast Asian leaders have cancelled their briefing on Burma by UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari because the Burmese military junta objected.

Instead, the nine leaders merely told the tenth, most notorious member Burma that it should democratise, especially after it signs the regional group’s landmark charter on Tuesday.

Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein had been expected to face a grilling over the violence at the informal dinner meeting. But he instead walked away with a victory as the highly anticipated Gambari briefing was called off.

That left summit host Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with the task of trying to justify a 180-degree turnaround and diplomatic defeat to a sceptial press conference.

Thein Sein had “made clear that the situation (in Burma) was a domestic Myanmar thing and that Myanmar was fully capable of handling the situation by itself,” he insisted, carefully using the official word for Burma that has been approved by the military junta.

The diplomatic bungle overshadowed the annual Asean summit to be held today.

The Asean summit leaders said Burma should open up “meaningful dialogue” with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, lift restrictions on Suu Kyi and release all political detainees, and work towards a “peaceful transition to democracy.”

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was one of those leaders who told Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein that the military junta must implement democratic reforms after signing the Asean charter.

“The expectation of the Philippines is that if (Burma) signs the charter, it is committed to returning to the path of democracy and release Aung San Suu Kyi,” she said at the working dinner.

Gambari was supposed to brief Asean and East Asian leaders on the progress of his mission in Burma, two months after a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Yangon left 15 killed and thousands arrested.

But Lee said Burma believed that Gambari “should only report to the UN Security Council and not to Asean or the East Asian Summit.”

“In view of (Burma)’s position, Gambari will not brief Asean or the East Asian Summit leaders,” he said. “Asean leaders agreed that Asean would respect (the military regime’s) wishes and make way for Myanmar to deal directly with the UN and the international community on its own.”

Burma warned over Asean charter


Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has said her country is unlikely to sign a new Asean charter unless Burma frees the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The regional group’s new charter, which would commit members to promoting human rights and bolstering democracy, is due to be ratified at a summit on Tuesday.

Burma’s suppression of mass protests in September was widely condemned.

The United States has warned that Asean’s credibility was at stake over its handling of the crisis in Burma.

The county’s military government has acknowledged that 15 people died during the crackdown, when security forces fired on demonstrators and thousands of people were jailed.

Earlier on Monday, the EU formally adopted tighter sanctions against Burma in response to the crackdown, including an embargo on imports of gemstones, timber and metal, and a wider visa ban against officials.

‘Extreme difficulty’

In a statement published after she met Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein in Singapore, President Arroyo said Burma would be committing itself to restore democracy and releasing Aung San Suu Kyi if it signed the charter.

If Myanmar signs the charter, it is committed to returning to the path of democracy and releasing Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Those who will sign the charter agree to the objective, spirit and intent of establishing a human rights body – the full protection of human rights within Asean,” she warned.

“Until the Philippine Congress sees that happen, it would have extreme difficulty in ratifying the Asean charter,” she added.

The charter will fail unless it is ratified by the parliaments of all its 10 member states.

The Burmese authorities have not yet responded to Ms Arroyo, but they have already forced the cancellation of a planned address by the UN envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari.

Host nation Singapore had invited Mr Gambari, but Burma said his briefing would interfere with “domestic matters” and gained the support of all members except the hosts, officials said.

Singapore has also used conciliatory language in the run-up to the summit, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong describing Burma as “part of the family”.

“If you make all these fierce statements and supposing we say we expel [Burma] from Asean, what difference does it make?” he told the BBC.

‘Special responsibility’

The warning by Ms Arroyo came shortly after the most senior US trade official, Susan Schwab, said Asean’s credibility was at stake over Burma.

Ms Schwab, who is in Singapore for the summit, said the regional grouping had a “special responsibility” for the country.

She said it could not be “business as usual” while the repression continued.

The proposed Asean charter would codify the bloc’s rule rules for the first time in the bloc’s 40-year history.

It will also help smooth the way for the group’s aim of full economic integration.

Human rights groups have criticised it, however, saying the document does not include a mechanism for punishing countries which fail to meet their obligations.

The Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) is composed of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

US warns Asean over Burma stance
Amy Kazmin
Financial Times
19 Nov 07

A top US trade official warned on Monday that “the credibility and reputation” of the Association of South East Asian nations had been undermined by its failure to push Burma’s ruling generals into meaningful reforms.

Susan Schwab, the US trade representative, said she told her Asean counterparts that they had a “special responsibility when it comes to the situation in Burma”, where at least 15 people were killed in the junta’s suppression of anti-government protests in late September.

“The credibility and reputation of Asean as an organisation has been called into question because of the situation in Burma,” she said. “It just can’t be business as usual.” She said Asean countries were aware of the problem confronting them and that “they take it seriously. The question is what the results will be.”

Just hours later, though, Asean leaders cancelled a planned briefing by Ibrahim Gambari, the United Nations special envoy, to regional leaders after strong objections from General Thein Sein, the Burmese prime minister, who said the recent unrest in Burma, and subsequent crackdown, were “a domestic affair”.

After hours of intense discussion, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, told journalists: “Asean leaders agreed they would respect Myanmar’s wishes, and make way for Myanmar [Burma] to deal directly with the UN on its own.”

But Mr Lee said that while Asean was ready to play a role should the ruling generals wish it, most of the region’s leaders felt that the military regime “should not go back or stay put” and had to pursue a dialogue with the democratic opposition.

The diplomatic manoeuvres came a day after Asean rebuffed a unanimous US Senate resolution calling for the suspension or expulsion of Burma’s military rulers from the organisation until the regime improved its human rights record.

Burma is “part of our family”, Ong Keng Yong, the secretary-general, said. “It’s like you as a parent. If you have a troubled child, do you say, ‘Go out of the house, I don’t want to talk to you’?”

Burma, which was admitted to Asean a decade ago, has ignored appeals from its fellow members to free Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel prize-winning democracy leader, and to engage in dialogue on reform.

South-east Asia’s toothless charter

Financial Times
19 Nov 07

Recent demonstrations in Burma, led by Buddhist monks and crushed by the military junta, have provided an uncomfortable but useful dose of reality for south-east Asian leaders ahead of the signing of their flawed constitution in Singapore today.

Forty years after the organisation was founded, the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations see their new charter as a sign that Asean has come of age. Sadly, the wording of the charter, including the vague promise of a regional human rights body, merely exposes Asean’s weaknesses and the ethical vacuum at its heart.

The problem with Asean is not simply the economic gap between the richest members, led by Singapore and Malaysia, and the poorest, such as Burma and Laos, although that does make it hard to create the common market promised for 2015.

A bigger difficulty is that Asean is not, like Europe, a collection of nations with common values, but a collection of regimes with common interests. Those interests, whether they concern foreign policy or the perpetuation of authoritarian rule at home, partly reflect Asean’s cold war origins as an anti-communist security group and are rarely shared by the “peoples of the member states” of Asean in whose name the charter is written.

Asian leaders have portrayed disagreement over Burma as a dispute between east and west. An Asian desire for “consensus” is supposed to explain the lack of enforcement mechanisms or punishments for offending member states in the charter. Yet there is little doubt that south-east Asian citizens would (if consulted) be as vocal as Europeans or Americans in supporting the enforcement of human rights for Burmese and other Asians.

Given their own divisions, Europeans cannot be smug about the writing of regional constitutions. Europe, however, already has executive, judicial and legislative bodies to ensure application of common laws and policies. Asean does not.

Even when it does espouse justice, democracy and human rights, the Asean charter – according to drafts that have been leaked, for the text has not been divulged to the public in advance – immediately backs down and says these noble ideals must be applied with “due regard to the rights and responsibilities of the member states”. That, like the injunction against anarchy, is a cop-out with which every Burmese general can feel comfortable.

If Asean wants to be internationally respected and to make its mark in a world obsessed by the economic giants of China and India, its leaders will have to come up with something better than this.

Toothless charter will hurt Asean credibility
Jeremy Sarkin
20 Nov 07

It is encouraging that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is introducing a human rights charter and will establish a human rights body to promote human rights and democracy in this part of the world.

While Asian countries have for many years discussed ways of redressing the absence of a regional human rights instrument and institution, this is the first concrete step taken to put a treaty in place and develop a human rights structure that will govern such issues.

There are already such regional arrangements in Africa, the Americas and Europe for human rights promotion and protection.

While each of these systems have their individual strengths and weaknesses, and some are more developed than others, having such a system is better than nothing at all.

Problematically, however, the Asean charter to be adopted by member states tomorrow has to be ratified by all members before it comes into force.

Furthermore, it has no punitive measures that could be taken against states that are non-compliant with the human rights and democracy provisions of the charter.

It will be left to the leadership of Asean countries to determine what if any steps ought to be taken against a delinquent state.

The charter would have been strengthened had it contained the recommendations of a group of 10 statesmen from the region. The statesmen suggested that member states which do not comply with the charter on issues such as human rights should be censured, suspended or expelled from the organisation.

While the charter aims ”to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms”, it also contains the principle that there shall be no interference in the domestic affairs of states. This principle, as it has in the past, will severely hamper the ability of Asean to deal with issues in member states.

This principle has already severely limited what Asean has been willing to do in relation to Burma.

Another limitation of the charter is the fact that decisions have to be arrived at by consensus.

It is, however, clear that Asean’s credibility is on the line.

It has failed to deal with Burma and a host of other problems in the region adequately.

The fact that it now will have a charter with human rights provisions will be seen to be a further test of Asean’s resolve and ability to deal with the ongoing crisis in Burma.

While Asean has in the past been reluctant to deal with Burma, it has recently indicated that it is willing to play some part in dealing with the situation. But it has indicated that it is unwilling to impose measures such as sanctions.

While the charter makes provision for a human rights body to be established that will seek the ”promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms” in the region, what the structure will be is unknown and the fact that it will be established by the foreign ministers of the various states implies that it will be given little teeth to deal with the various problems it will have to contend with.

While Burma initially opposed the creation of such an institution the fact that it now has dropped its opposition may mean that it no longer fears the creation of such a body. It seems as though Burma was given assurances that it could play a part in the process to establish the human rights body and ensure that the mechanism had limits on its powers.

If Asean is keen for the charter to be more that an exercise in international diplomacy it will need to create a human rights oversight institution that is truly able to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights in the region.

A paper charter and toothless human rights institution will cause Asean to lose more credibility and legitimacy.

Jeremy Sarkin is visiting professor of international human rights, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Boston