Myanmar blocks ASEAN move for EU-style alliance

Myanmar blocks ASEAN move for EU-style alliance

SINGAPORE: Southeast Asian leaders adopted a landmark charter on Tuesday that seeks to promote free trade and human rights, but their vision to create an integrated, EU-style bloc was marred by Myanmar’s snub to democracy.

In a diplomatic bungle, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also abruptly withdrew an invitation to UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari to address Asian leaders after Myanmar objected.

ASEAN leaders further rejected calls to suspend Myanmar from the bloc to punish the junta’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that left 15 people dead in September, and its refusal to free opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“ASEAN leaders will strive to prevent the Myanmar issue from obstructing our efforts to deepen integration and build an ASEAN Community,” Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong said in his opening remarks at the annual summit. Still, ASEAN leaders urged Myanmar’s junta to open a “meaningful dialogue” with Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, release her from house arrest, free all political detainees and work toward a “peaceful transition to democracy”.

ASEAN secretary general Ong Keng Yong insisted the body was not kow-towing to Myanmar by shelving Gambari’s scheduled address on Wednesday. “We leave to fight another day,” Ong told reporters. “We don’t want to come across as being too confrontational in a situation like this.” Gambari arrived at the summit venue — a luxury hotel in downtown Singapore — and launched into private meetings with officials from Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. The key event of the gathering was the adoption of the ASEAN Charter after nearly three years of haggling.

The long-overdue ASEAN Charter is aimed at formally turning the 40-year-old organisation — often derided as a toothless talk shop — into a rules-based legal entity. That means ASEAN can sue and be sued under the charter, and will be held accountable for all the treaties and agreements it signs. It will also set up enforceable financial, trade and environmental rules. One of the most significant pledges in the charter is to set up a regional human rights body.

Critics note, however, that it will have limited impact, given that it will not be able to punish governments that violate the human rights of their citizens. Negotiators have watered it down by dropping earlier recommendations to consider sanctions, including possible expulsion, in cases of serious breaches of the covenant by member nations. “Of course there has been some watering down,” said former Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas, who helped draft the charter. Still, “I think it’s a good step forward; it’s a momentous step forward”.

Charm Tong, a Shan refugee from Myanmar and well-known human rights activist who was welcomed by US President George W Bush at that White House last year, called the ASEAN Charter a sham for caving into Myanmar, also known as Burma. “ASEAN is shameful because it washes its hands off Burma, and passed on the burden of dealing with Burma to the UN,” Tong said in a statement released by the Solidarity for Asia Peoples Advocacies. Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo warned her Congress was unlikely to ratify the ASEAN Charter unless Myanmar restores democracy and frees Suu Kyi.

The Charter must be ratified by a Cabinet decision, referendums or by parliaments of member countries, a process likely to take a year. The pact will collapse if one country fails to ratify it. 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.

They will hold a second conclave on Wednesday, known as the East Asia Summit, with leaders of China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Philippine foreign secretary Alberto Romulo said Arroyo was to meet with Gambari later on Tuesday. When asked if Manila was confident the junta would bow to international pressure to seek democratic reforms, Romula replied: “Who knows; there may be a miracle.”

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: