The countries of South-East Asia are embarking on an exciting, new journey; it is a pity they are going to be slowed down by extra baggage that they ought never to have agreed to carry: Myanmar.
At a meeting this week in Singapore, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a four-decade-old loosely organized grouping, became a legal entity in order to, among other things, “create a single market and production base which is stable, prosperous, highly competitive and economically integrated”.
This is a significant step. A constitution for Asean paves the way for the creation of regional rule-making and dispute settlement organizations, broadening the scope for cross-border economic integration in South-East Asia.
Those who drafted the Asean legal charter couldn’t keep it focused purely on economic goals; doing that would have made the document look like a commercial pamphlet. To give the charter some gravitas, they wrote into it an agreement to set up an Asean human rights body. And that’s where things became farcical. One of the signatories to the document, which promised to promote personal freedoms, was Thein Sein, prime minister of Myanmar and a representative of the military junta that in September killed an estimated 110 pro-democracy protesters.
On 27 September, the foreign ministers of Asean were saying how appalled they were to learn that the junta had been using automatic weapons to quell protests. Two months later, they have allowed a member of the same oppressive regime to swear allegiance alongside them “to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
As for Myanmar, there can be only one explanation for its willingness to sign the pact: The country reckons—quite correctly—that Asean is in no shape to punish it for any lapse as long as China remains a friend and benefactor.
Myanmar has been a source of constant embarrassment for Asean since 1997, when former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad pulled the country into the grouping.
Asean’s policy of non-interference in a member country’s domestic affairs hasn’t helped.
Singapore, the host of this week’s summit, wanted Ibrahim Gambari, the United Nations’ special envoy to Myanmar, to brief the leaders jointly. At the minimum, it would have signalled to the international community that Asean’s self-avowed policy of “constructive engagement” with Myanmar—a brainchild of Thailand—doesn’t just mean cozying up to the generals. The Myanmar delegation complained about the plan, and the briefing had to be cancelled.
This is just how badly Burma, as the country was known earlier, has come to terrorize Asean. But why just blame Asean? India, which shares a border with Myanmar, is also courting the junta to counter China’s influence and secure access to the country’s energy resources.
To her credit, Philippines President Gloria Arroyo was brave enough to link her country’s support for the Asean accord with Myanmar’s behaviour.
The junta, she said at the summit, would have to take its commitment on human rights seriously by releasing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. “Unless the Philippine Senate sees that happen, it would have extreme difficulty in ratifying the Asean charter,” she said.
Can one really blame Philippine lawmakers if they refuse to ratify the code? Asean ought not to have allowed a Myanmar general to sully its constitution by putting his signature on it. The credibility of the Asean charter would have been enhanced if the leaders had begun the Singapore summit by suspending Myanmar until the process of mediation started by Gambari reached its logical conclusion.
South-East Asia is a compact region, eminently suitable to become a common market. As Standard & Poor’s noted last month: “About 3,000km, or less than four hours of flying time, separate Hanoi and Jakarta, between which the bulk of Asean’s wealth resides.” Besides, the seven main economies of Asean—Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines—have 500 million people between them with a per capita income of $2,100 (Rs82,600). If they can come together as a single market and production unit, they won’t get completely marginalized by the economic rise of China and India.
The process of becoming a common market is bound to create friction and pain, both real and imagined. Take the proposal to turn the entire South-East Asian region into a single aviation market by 2015. That will surely bankrupt some of the region’s inefficient, state-owned carriers that have managed to stay afloat in protected markets.
It is expected that it will be easier to enforce the timeline for regional integration now that Asean’s legal charter makes it possible for disputes to be settled through arbitration. This is a wrong time for Asean to get bogged down by Myanmar. Besides, the “caring and sharing community” that Asean wants to build can’t have a place for regimes that use automatic weapons on unarmed people and then have the audacity to sign declarations on human rights.
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