Forty years after its founding, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is still searching for credibility and clout, analysts say—unable to exert influence on Myanmar and unsure if its free-market ambitions will come to pass.
Asean, which meets next week in Singapore, has come a long way since its creation as a bulwark against Communism at the height of the Cold War by founding members Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
Flags of member countries at the venue where Asean defence ministers met for a three-day summit in Singapore
With the addition of Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, it is now an unlikely collection of monarchies, dictatorships, budding democracies and socialist regimes.
Given this diversity of governance, culture, language and religion, a policy of keeping out of each other’s internal affairs has enabled the group to stick together, many say—but has also become its biggest handicap.
“Asean wants to change and embrace positive aspects of democracy,?but?it’s?constrained by the very way it’s been defined,” said Singapore-based commentator P. Ramasamy.
This dilemma has been highlighted by the inability to rein in Myanmar, whose military government outraged the world once again in September with a violent crackdown on mass protests.
“Asean is not capable of addressing issues which the international community wants it to. Asean can’t tell Burma to behave, it can only advise Burma,” Ramasamy said, using the country’s former name.
As the bloc’s leaders prepare to meet in Singapore next week for the 40th anniversary summit, their handling of Myanmar is being seen as a test of the organization’s potency and resolve. “I can’t remember any other issue that has been central to its own viability,” said Zaid Ibrahim, president of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Caucus formed by regional lawmakers to push for reforms in Myanmar.
He said years of hand-wringing over Myanmar had been taken to a new level by the junta’s crackdown on protests led by thousands of Buddhist monks, some of whom were beaten and killed.
“In the past it was always the business consideration that was uppermost,” Zaid said, referring to the deep commercial links forged by Asian businesses which have helped neutralize Western sanctions on the junta.
“Asean is very mindful of the effect its own position may have on economic investment and regional liability. So even business considerations require them to do something on this front,” he said.
Zaid said with the ruling generals apparently edging towards a dialogue with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Asean leaders have to seize the initiative. “If they don’t deal with Burma, they’re going to be the laughing stock of the world,” he said.
Advocates of a tougher approach had hoped a new Asean charter to be signed in Singapore would include a mechanism to suspend or eject errant members.
However, a draft obtained by AFP drops punitive measures. On the trade front, Asean’s achievements and failings will also be highlighted by the signing of a blueprint for a regional economic community.
Analysts have applauded the bloc for moving its timetable for economic integration forward by five years to 2015, but the plans hinge on painful reforms which are threatened by red tape and vested interests.
Standard Chartered Bank economist Alvin Liew said that despite progress in reducing tariffs, profound differences between the region’s economies remained a fundamental stumbling block.
“The state of a lot of the countries—the financial sectors and the speed of development—is still fairly different, and when you talk about financial integration a lot more has to be in place,” Liew said.
While it may be a talking shop, analysts say, these neighbouring nations—with their history of wars, animosities and confrontation even up until recent times—are at least still talking. “Asean seems to fulfil a particular need and identity for the members of this region,” said Ramasamy. “And as long as this need is there, it will continue.”