No Talking Shop, Please

Members of the dreary Association of Southeast Asian Nations need to do something worthwhile in their week-long series of meetings here next week to convince their respective populations that they are capable of anything other than vapidity.

Their docile leaders, who traditionally eschew criticising the excesses of fellow member nations, including human rights abuses, due to the unwritten rule of “non-interference” even when sagacity demands otherwise, will have the ear of the world insofar as the United States is concerned as least.

During his attendance at the annual jamboree – each year derided by commentators as little more than a talking shop where nothing of substance is ever decided, much less achieved – President Barack Obama will be hoping for progress in matters concerning US relations with members of the 10-nation bloc that has its secretariat in Jakarta. He should also press leaders to take forceful stands internally and goad ASEAN into becoming a force for good.

Sadly, the grouping’s maxim, One Vision, One Identity, One Community, is a dream that has been punctured by years of inaction and a singular lack of ambition.

As the Western world, long the established powerhouse region, drowns in seemingly insurmountable debt oceans, it is the vibrant countries of Southeast Asia that have been rising. While many, including Indonesia, were felled by the Asian financial crisis of 1997, all have escaped the fiscal contagion swirling around the US and Europe since 2008 that now threatens a double-dip as countries in Europe declare bankruptcy in domino effect. The savings and spending power of people around Southeast Asia, coupled with robust manufacturing exports, ensures continued stability.

It is against this enviable backdrop that political and human rights issued must be tackled. It is incontestable that abuses are being committed in countries that are members of ASEAN, and as they come together in Bali next week they must be held to account. The conventional reserve of Asian cultures should have no place at the discussion table.

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