Divisions over Burma (Myanmar) overshadowed the 40th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in Singapore this week. The 10 Southeast Asian members signed a "historic charter" Tuesday affirming their commitment to form a regional bloc and to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. But failure to take a stand on Burma exposed rifts within the group.
At least one country, the Philippines, suggested it would not ratify the charter unless Burma explicitly embraced democracy and freed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The ASEAN charter creates permanent representation for members at its secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia. It commits to meetings twice a year and includes a blueprint for creating a European-style trading bloc by 2015, reports The New York Times. The charter promises to create a human rights body but has no provisions to enforce such standards.
The squabbling over Myanmar only underscored the disparate levels of political maturity and development that exist between Asean's older and newer members.
ASEAN's newer members, poor and ruled by autocratic governments — Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam — empathize with Myanmar's ruling junta and oppose efforts to press it to tolerate political dissent. Analysts said these countries feared that any stronger action by ASEAN on Myanmar might set an unwelcome precedent.
Earlier in the week, host Singapore, under pressure from Burma, withdrew an invitation to Ibrahim Gambari, UN special envoy to Burma, to speak at the conference, reports Australia's The Age.
Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, was forced to explain the decision to the media.
"Prime Minister Thein Sein of Myanmar [Burma] made clear that the situation in Myanmar was a domestic Myanmar affair and that Myanmar was fully capable of handling the situation itself," he said.
International outrage over Burma's military crackdown may cost ASEAN dearly, The Age suggested. Already, it is stalling free trade negotiations with the United States and causing diplomatic trouble with Europe.
The president of the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo, Wednesday threatened to veto the final charter, reports Philippine daily The Inquirer.
"While we are pleased that we have incorporated language in the Charter that advances human rights and democracy, we remain concerned that the forces of authoritarianism still move rather slowly towards democracy in Myanmar," Arroyo told reporters shortly here shortly before flying back to Manila.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the summit, Mr. Gambari said that ASEAN needs to "beef up" its role if it is to influence Burma, reports the Singapore-based Channel News Asia.
"[T]hose who support the [ASEAN] secretary-general could do so in concrete terms by encouraging the government of Myanmar to cooperate fully, regularly and authentically with United Nations good officers," [Gambari] added.
Treatment of Gambari and failure to pressure Burma had pro-democracy activists accusing the body of hypocrisy, according to a report in Britain's The Telegraph. Burmese dissidents staged protests around the region.
Many Western analysts point out that only one of ASEAN's members - Indonesia - is a functioning democracy and that members have no interest in promoting interventionist policies or political reform. Critics also say ASEAN is failing to tackle Burma over its human rights record because of financial concerns.
Singapore itself continues to have cosy business relations with Burma. According to Singapore's foreign minister, George Yoe, the city-state's trade with Burma last year amounted to only £336,000, just 0.1 per cent of his country's total foreign trade.
Bloomberg highlighted the importance of Burma's natural-gas reserves to ASEAN members like Thailand. With crude oil prices nearing $100 a barrel, gas brings a premium in Asia, the report noted, adding that nearly 10 years of sanctions against Burma have been undermined by Asia's – and particularly China's –quest for energy.
Even before the meeting, some analysts had suggested that the group would find it hard to discard the "ASEAN way" that prioritizes consensus over confrontation. Writing in the Asia Times, security analyst Stanley Weiss suggested Burma will be the litmus test not only for the organization's credibility but its willingness to change.
Indeed, comparing the charter's lofty rhetoric against the realities of ASEAN at 40 years old reveals a region that is either experiencing a mid-life crisis or finally coming of age. Culturally, the new charter proclaims Southeast Asia to be a single "community" united by "one vision, one identity". But given the extraordinary diversity of the region's 577 million people - Muslim-majority Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei; Buddhist-majority Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos; Christian-majority Philippines - forging a common sense of community will as ever be no easy task.
People "must develop a dual identity of being a national of a member state and an ASEAN citizen", says Surin [Pitsuwin, former Thai foreign minister and the next ASEAN secretary-general], a Muslim and intellectual from southern Thailand who has called for reconciliation to end his homeland's separatist Muslim insurgency.
… And the stakes couldn't be higher. "The road to reconciliation between the West and the Muslim world runs through Southeast Asia," argues Surin, noting that more than half the region's population will soon be Muslim. "We have to try to keep them moderate, accommodating, progressive and constructively engaged with the outside world."