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From a talk shop
To a brave new Asean

The advent of the Asean Charter should transform the regional bloc into a rules-based organisation with effective decision-making power – from what its critics call a talk shop.

Four decades after its founding, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has turned an important
chapter. The group has endorsed a blueprint for a charter, which will invigorate Asean and enable it to serve its purpose as the main driving force for regional cooperation to promote peace and stability, and strengthen economic growth and democracy.

Ready to be signed by the Asean leaders at the summit in Singapore in November, the charter will come into force
after all the members of the grouping ratify it, which shouldn’t take more than a year.

The 50-page-plus document prepared by elder statesmen and experts (eminent persons group, or EPG) from the 10 Asean member states will see to it that members honour their obligations and commitments to the organisation in implementing policies and complying with its rules and regulations.

The function of Asean will no longer be based on goodwill and voluntary engagement of its members, which has been the case so far. Asean resolutions and decisions will be legally binding and can therefore be left no room for rogue members.

Asean has for too long been unable to mobilise collective efforts by its members. It has achieved nothing substantial, and no wonder, it is seen as ineffective regional talk shop. It is time the organisation started making real progress towards its ambitious goal of
economic integration.

The charter will provide for effective decision-making by allowing voting, subject to rules of procedure to be determined by a council of Asean leaders.

Members will have no excuse for their failure to live up to its ideals and objectives. They will have to toe the line and meet the group’s standards of behaviour, observe membership obligations and comply with rules and regulations.

As recommended by the EPG, the charter will require member states to take it seriously for failure to meet the commitments will mean losing their privileges
and rights, or being expelled in extreme cases where a member's obligations and Asean commitments outlined in the charter are flouted routinely.

The first task for a stronger Asean should be deciding how to persuade or compel Burma's repressive military junta to restore democracy in that tortured country, which is the single most important problem that the regional bloc has failed to resolve.

Since the country joined Asean in 1997, Burma has time and again exposed the regional group’s impotence and the structural flaws of an organisation that depends strictly on consensus in its decision-making.

Obviously, Burma, a country being brutalised by a bunch of power-hungry junta, remains a dead weight that holds back Asean's ideals and progress. Unfortunately,
those member countries with heavy stakes in Burma have found and will still find it hard to get tough with the rogue regime.

Asean has expressed its revulsion at Burmese junta’s violent crackdown of protesting monks and citizens. It has demanded the junta to stop shooting unarmed protesters. It has given full but unspecified support for the UN envoy’s mediation efforts. But that is all that has been done.

Asean’s strength lies in the unity of members. Never mind Burma the rogue member. Will it tantamount to committing self-destruction if Asean expels Burma, which the group won’t do, though? Then how could Asean expect equal treatment for Burma in discussions with its trade partners?

A possible way out of this dilemma is to ask the junta to take a time-out and stay away from Asean’s meetings including those with the dialogue partners until the junta is ready to play by the rules. The junta, which agreed to skip its turn as Asean chairman in 2005, still needs time to concentrate on national reconciliation and its political problems.

Asean can no longer afford to lose its credibility and relevance in today’s fast changing global environment characterised by intense competition. The new charter should see the evolution of the 40 years old regional group from a weak, slow-moving geographical bloc into a strong, fully-integrated organization.


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