ASEAN Summit marred by controversy

Ren Yi Hooi, BASC Research Assistant

With the first ever ASEAN-US summit confirmed to take place in conjunction with the annual APEC Meeting in Singapore next month, ASEAN’s importance as a region appears to have gained further recognition on the global platform. However, sticky disputes over human rights issues and friction between some member nations threaten the grouping’s hopes to achieve a fully integrated Southeast Asian community by 2015.

On the first day of the ASEAN Summit 2009 in Hua Hin, Thailand, the inauguration of its new human rights body, the Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), was overshadowed by the barring of activists from a dialogue with Southeast Asian leaders and tension between the Thai and Cambodian prime ministers.

The summit began inauspiciously with the leaders of 5 countries – Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei – failing to arrive in time for the opening ceremony, causing several activists to walk out in protest to the perceived snub, and the states of Burma, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Singapore vetoing the activists meant to represent their own countries. Without the power to investigate governments or impose sanctions, in any case, AICHR has already been criticized as a body lacking “teeth”; one with more talk than substance. To add fuel to the fire, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen compared Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted Thai Prime Minister, to Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese Nobel Peace Laureate, and declared that Mr Thaksin would be allowed to stay in Cambodia as his economic advisor.

Meanwhile, the region is still scrambling to solve a range of internal challenges, including a trade dispute between Thailand and Philippines, territorial disputes between Malaysia and Indonesia as well as the Philippines and Singapore, and conflicting claims to natural gas deposits in the South China Sea by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

With such outstanding conflicts compounding the vast political and social differences between member states, ASEAN’s ambitions to create a single market by 2015 look set to be disappointed. Although it is indisputably one of the world’s fastest growing economic regions, what remains to be seen is the political leaders of ASEAN are 1) able to override individual disputes in order to facilitate greater regional cooperation and 2) willing to sink its “teeth” into globally scrutinized issues (i.e. human rights) in a manner that underscores action in addition to talk. It is only with the concerted will to resolve difficult issues for once and for all, that ASEAN will truly be able to integrate into a united global market that is attractive to the world.

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