Last month, the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met with their counterparts from China, Japan, and Korea. This meeting had been envisaged as a celebration of three decades of economic growth and stability. Instead, ASEAN was trying to find an effective solution to its members' currency crisis. Since July, currencies in the region have depreciated anywhere from 16 to 128 percent. The economic slide has continued despite International Monetary Fund bailouts of $17.2 billion and $37 billion for Thailand and Indonesia, respectively.
Originally, the ASEAN meeting was to formulate a vision of how the region might look in the year 2020. The main thrust of that vision: closer economic integration within the region. ASEAN members know it is in their interest to foster regional macro-economic and financial stability by closely consulting with one another, especially in the wake of the currency crisis.
Another goal is to develop the region as a future "force for peace, justice, and moderation." Yet not once in the ASEAN "Vision 2020" document is there a reference to democracy and human rights. This reflects divisions in ASEAN over how democracy and human rights should be promoted.
Thailand took the lead in trying to get other ASEAN members to accept the concept of an "open society" - democratic, humane, and respectful of human rights. The concept is also appreciated in the Philippines. But calls for an "open society" do not resonate with the leaders of Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Laos. They are not convinced openness will improve the well-being of their people. Indeed, they believe such a concept will only cause instability. They fear openness would encourage foreigners (particularly Westerners) to interfere in the internal affairs of ASEAN nations.
While Thailand's effort to have ASEAN accept the idea of an "open society" failed, this doesn't hide demands among Southeast Asians that their governments be made more accountable and transparent - two important ingredients of openness.
The role of women is changing, and nongovernmental organizations are articulating their demands. There is stronger investigative journalism in the region. Academics are more assertive and confident, and a socially conscious business community is developing. Governments that have justified authoritarianism in the name of social order and economic development can no longer ignore these groups.
For the past 30 years, ASEAN governments have had a policy of noninterference in each other's internal affairs. December's meeting of leaders took an important first step in moving toward a multilateral approach to issues such as the environment, human resources, and social development. Democracy and the protection of human rights are two other issues the group should address.
There are some positive signs. President Suharto of Indonesia has publicly called for a transparent national budget, open to public view. With the rupiah having lost more than half its value in the past six months, this is significant. Even more important, Indonesia and other ASEAN nations must work to abolish old ways of governance and operating businesses. Transparent policies are necessary if ASEAN wants to restore economic confidence in the long term.
Since its creation, ASEAN has played a key role in the development of Southeast Asia by promoting international cooperation in the region and the economic success of member countries. For the region to reach its full potential, however, ASEAN governments must listen closely to their people about issues which ought to be part of the public-policy dialogue - including democracy and human rights.
* John J. Brandon is a Southeast Asia specialist for The Asia Foundation in Washington. The views expressed here are his own.