New Dawn for Southeast Asia

JAKARTA ~ The Association of Southeast Asian Nations took a major step toward becoming an EU-style community this week with the passing into force of a new charter setting benchmarks for democracy.

The charter sets out rules of membership, transforms ASEAN into a legal entity and envisages a single free trade area by 2015 for the region of 500 million people.

It came into force with a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers at the bloc’s Jakarta secretariat on Monday, 30 days after Thailand became the last member to deposit its ratifying documents.

“This is a momentous development when ASEAN is consolidating, integrating and transforming itself into a community,” President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said.

“It is achieved while ASEAN seeks a more vigorous role in Asian and global affairs at a time when the international system is experiencing a seismic shift,” he added, referring to climate change and economic upheaval.

“Southeast Asia is no longer the bitterly divided, war-torn region it was in the 1960s and 1970s.”

ASEAN consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The charter was supposed to have been activated at a summit in Thailand this month but that meeting was postponed by a domestic political crisis which has underscored the fragility of democracy and human rights across the region.

Thai Information Minister Mun Patanotai presided over the presentation ceremony as representative of the bloc’s current chair, as the country lacks a foreign minister to do the job.

Thai lawmakers on Monday elected opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva as the country’s third prime minister in four months after half a year of crippling protests.

“Democracy – it’s a yo-yo in the system; it’s a yo-yo in the region,” ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters.

“Some countries used to be ahead of others; now they are behind. They’re all in the process of transforming themselves to become more open, more participatory, more democratic.”

He said that despite some calls for a new round of protectionism in the face of the global economic meltdown, the bloc agreed that closer economic integration was the best way out of the crisis.

“We also realize that the best way out of this – and the best protection, best buffer, best shield – would be to continue… to bring down our tariffs and non-tariff barriers,” he said.

The charter will give ASEAN, often dismissed as a talking shop, greater clout in international negotiations but critics argue that some member states will continue to get away with gross human rights abuses.

The bloc’s proposed new rights body has no teeth and the charter has no provision to sanction members like Myanmar, where the junta has kept democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the past 18 years.

The country’s secretive junta is under European Union and United States sanctions over its human rights record.

Surin dismissed criticism that the charter was purely symbolic.

“There is room for improvement. But to say that this piece of paper, this document is worth nothing, I think it’s not true. It’s how we are going to make it a living document,” he said.

No date has been set for the creation of the planned rights body but a first draft of its terms of reference will be handed over to a meeting of foreign ministers in Thailand in July, officials said.

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