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Silence in Southeast Asia

June 10, 2003



One reason many people don't know about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, is that its 10 member-states have a pact not to criticize each other's records on democracy and human rights.

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When Burma's military junta, for instance, organized an attack on pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on May 30, the best ASEAN could say is that Burma's action hurt the group's "image." Europe and the US, meanwhile, may impose new sanctions on Burma (or Myanmar) and have demanded access to Ms. Suu Kyi, who may have been injured in the attack.

Thailand, too, faced no ire from ASEAN for its three-month campaign to shoot any known drug dealer. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ordered police "to produce results at any cost." An estimated 2,275 people were summarily executed.

ASEAN also is silent on Indonesia's refusal to prosecute the senior officer who commanded forces in East Timor in 1999 when local militias went on a killing rampage.

And it won't comment as Indonesia's military currently attacks common villagers - using rape, burning, and murder as tactics - in an attempt to wipe out some 5,000 pro-independence rebels in the northern Sumatran province of Aceh.

The US, meanwhile, is trying to get ASEAN members to help stop a rise in political violence in Cambodia. But don't hold your breath.

Regional groupings of countries have the potential to force reforms in member states. The European Union sets the model. The Organization of American States likewise has had some clout in Latin America. The African Union has expressed the willingness, but not shown the will, to bring change to troubled places such as Zimbabwe and Liberia.

ASEAN, which was formed in the 1960s to fend off communist aggression from China, and later Vietnam, still has too many members in which democracy is weak or nonexistent and rights are regularly abused. But unless it takes a strong stand against the region's worst atrocities, its nations won't see the expansion of freedom needed for sustained prosperity.

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