Asean on the Rocks

The Wall Street Journal

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is noted more for what it doesn’t do than for what it does do. Topping the list is its nonaction on Burma, which is a member of the 10-nation regional group. Two other members, Thailand and Cambodia, are currently facing off over a border dispute over an 11th-century temple while Asean stands by.

Nothing at this week’s meeting of Asean foreign ministers in Singapore indicates that the organization is making progress in addressing its members’ most important problems. The assembled ministers issued a mild rebuke of Burma on Monday, managing to mention detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a press release for the first time ever.

Some Southeast Asians are outraged by Asean’s kid-gloves treatment of Burma and are starting to push back. Their catalyst is opposition to the group’s new charter, which would make Asean a legal entity and create a human-rights body. It must be ratified by every member state.

In Indonesia, there are signs that Parliament might reject the charter. Some opposition politicians have made Burma their key issue, and many Indonesians feel a kinship with Burma’s embattled citizenry, remembering the repressive rule of the late President Suharto.

In the Philippines — another nation that’s been outspoken about Burma — President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is trying to figure out how to sell the charter to a skeptical Parliament. She said last year that the charter would likely be voted down unless Asean persuaded Burma to free Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for nearly a dozen years.

In Singapore this week, the foreign ministers glossed over all this, as usual, in favor of the group’s vaunted “consensus.” One of the crowning moments of the meeting was the announcement that Burma had ratified the new charter. A day later, the Burmese envoy was busy making sure that the new human-rights body created by the charter would be powerless to investigate the junta’s many abuses. Aung Sang Suu Kyi, he said, would stay in detention until at least next May.

Asean isn’t the only group that has failed to engage Burma effectively; the U.N. has hardly done better. But it’s telling that during the relief efforts after Cyclone Nargis last year, Burma’s generals preferred to work with Asean over the U.N. They know who their friends — or, rather, their enablers — are. Burma’s people are suffering. It’s to their detriment that Asean continues to play that role.