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  November - December 2009


Tribute to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand,
the world’s longest reigning monarch. Blessed are all Thais to have a King of sincerity, compassion and plain common sense. For all those who respect His Majesty for his integrity, it was an immense relief and joy to learn that the great monarch is convalescing from his recent illness. In this humble tribute, commemorating His Majesty’s 82nd Birthday, AseanAffairs presents a snapshot of His Majesty’s life and works.

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A banner posted on
a Burmese dissident website.
A protest led by Amnesty International which awarded Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar democracy icon, its most prestigious honour – the “Ambassador of Conscience” Award for 2009.

Pathetic are those Asean bashers.

Why do they keep picking on Asean – an assortment of semi-democracies, monarchies, communists and dictatorships making up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, in short? Those incorrigible critics have been bent on finding fault with Asean (just call it ‘ei-see-yin’ or ‘aa-see-yin’ or ‘aa-see-yan’, or whichever is easier for you to say). Shouldn’t they be showing some due respect instead?

Asean watchers should think about it carefully. The highly-venerable ten-nation regional bloc has been out there for the last 42 years (just a few decades younger than the European Union). It started with just 6 members but since 1997 has grown to cover all the 10 economies in the region. Now, Asean has its own Charter, never mind it actually turns the bloc into a rules-based organisation or a legal entity.

Forget about the credibility issue facing Asean. Isn’t it slanderous to say so when the economic powerhouses are competing hard for free trade deals with Asean now that the group is poised to launch an integrated market of half a billion consumers?

It’s a pity Asean has to put up with unfair and undeserved criticism.

Take for instance the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, or AICHR, that came into existence at the 15th Summit in Cha-Am, a seaside resort town south of Thailand’s capital Bangkok, late October 2009.   

This is a historic milestone for Asean, and a logical outcome of the Asean Charter. It is unfortunate if not surprising that the birth of Asean human rights watchdog attracted a lot of bad press.
Worst, it was the region’s own press that took the initiative to start the disparagement, blowing up a small incident. The regional dailies seemed to get a kick out of the ‘row’ between civil society groups from the Asean member states and the heads of government.

They quoted the NGO delegates who accused Asean governments of being insincere about democratic reforms, which they have all signed up to under the Asean Charter, which aims to forge an Asean Community by 2015. The human rights body is part of this process.

Likewise, Western news wires belittled the advent of Asean’s landmark human rights watchdog, spotlighting the inclusion in its membership military-ruled Myanmar, which they labelled as one of the world’s worst human rights offenders.

That shouldn’t be a concern for Asean for it never actually worries about Myanmar proving a burden or undermining the bloc's international standing and efforts to forge free trade areas with the United States and Europe.

What then was the cause of the unfortunate incident in which the dialogue Thailand had planned for the Asean government heads and the NGO reps?

It was 11:30pm, Thursday, 24th of October, a day (or hours) before the meeting between the civil society and Asean heads of governments was to take place. Thai Foreign Ministry Officials took the trouble to timely inform the civil society delegates - elected at a meeting of the Asean People's Forum a few days earlier – about a change in the meeting arrangement.

They said the governments of Myanmar, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines would prefer meeting with the country delegates they picked themselves rather than the NGOs chosen at the forum.

Vietnam and Brunei governments also had their own choice of delegates. Only three members – Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia had independent representatives as opposed to seven other members opting for their hand-picked ones.  

The three delegates stayed away from the meeting the next day to show their spirit of solidarity with their five ‘outcasts’. The majority voice prevailed. Isn’t it a typical Asean way?

Deplorably, diehard critics couldn’t help making it a big deal out of it. They derided the AICHR over its lack of sanction powers against rights abusers. They kept fretting over Asean’s adherence to its traditional principle of non-interference.

“While Asean may try to move ahead, Burma remains the elephant in the room. It absolutely undermines the spirit of what Asean could ever do,” said one rights advocate.
Like it or not, the elephant will be around as long as its neighbours – Thailand, Singapore, China, India and others find it irresistible to take advantage of the resources in Myanmar. For them, the longer the junta rules Myanmar the better.

Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva hands the 'Cha-am Hua Hin Declaration on the inauguration of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights' to head of Thailand's human rights body Sriprapha Petcharamesree.

Isn’t it too much for the rights activists to expect the AICHR to help set free Myanmar’s 2,000 political prisoners, including democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi? Why can’t they let Asean alone with its focus on promotion rather than protection of human rights?

Besides, don’t they realise ‘looks’ are probably more important for Asean than the substance. With a rights body, Asean appears a respectful association despite the unfortunate perception of Asean being a loose grouping that act by consensus, avoid confrontations and maintain an approach based on engagement or constructiveness or flexibility when dealing with Myanmar.

It must be noted here that there were quite a number of local papers spreading ‘positive’ news about the AICHR, thank to those Asean governments having the press that never resort to criticising their own governments, be it right or wrong.  

Kudos to The Straits Times. Singapore’s respected daily was a good example. It hailed the launch of the Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), stressing that it signalled a strong intent towards promoting and protecting human rights in the region.  ....




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