By: Our Correspondent


While international
organizations and regional blocs like the European Union are trying
so hard to stay relevant, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN) seems not to be bothering.

First was the
disastrous and disgraceful climbdown at the recent 13th
ASEAN summit in Singapore, when the organization bent to the demands
of Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein in refusing to allow United
Nations Envoy Ibrahim Gambari to brief leaders and their dialogue
partners from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South
Korea on Burma’s crackdown on Buddhist monks and civilian
protesters — forcing Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore,
which now chairs ASEAN, to scrap the meeting.

Worse yet is the
ASEAN Charter, which confirms that the principle of non-interference
will remain unchanged. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, herself mired charges
of corruption and a domestic mess last week with an attempted coup,
at least stood up and said she wouldn't sign the charter unless the
long-confined Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Ky is
freed and Burma agrees to some degree of human rights liberalization.

Leaders from the 10
member countries ended up signing a charter that aims towards
comprehensive integration, but that has significant problems that
certainly render the charter problematical, if not meaningless. On
the economic front, the charter contains the ASEAN Economic Community
(AEC) Blueprint that was adopted at the summit. Similar to — if
not inspired by — the European Economic Community, the AEC
Blueprint aims for complete economic integration among 10 member
countries by 2015.

For a group as
diverse as ASEAN, whose members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia,
Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and
Vietnam, the AEC Blueprint is, indeed, a bold and encouraging vision.
But at the same time, the very diversity of or imbalance among the 10
members' economies makes it very difficult to realize the AEC
Blueprint by 2015 as planned.

At the heart of
this plan is the Common Effective Preferential Tariff (CEPT), which
ultimately targets a zero tariff rate among the 10 members. While
this goal is easier to reach for advanced economies in ASEAN, namely
Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and
Thailand, it is more difficult for their less developed fellow
economies, namely Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam. The main reason
is that the latter group, as do most developing countries, tends to
have high tariff rates as a way to maintain or improve their terms of
trade (prices of a country's exports over its imports).

enough, ASEAN's less-developed economies are given a later schedule
for tariff reduction. But for the AEC vision to be realized, it will
require a strong political will, discipline and leadership from them
and the rest of ASEAN.

Put differently,
what happens if any member — regardless of its economic
stage — which does not respect and meet the deadline of tariff
reduction and other requirements set out by the AEC Blueprint? Is
there some sort of punishment for those that don't do their parts
and, thus, fail the whole AEC vision altogether? And may other
members have any say?

Sadly, the answer
to these questions is negative. The cause of this is nothing other
than ASEAN's fundamental principle of non-interference.

Forty years ago
when ASEAN was founded, its founding fathers — some of whom are
still alive — agreed that all ASEAN members would not interfere
with matters considered to be a fellow member's domestic affairs.
After the Cold War, this principle seemed to work well for ASEAN,
whose members then were Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines,
Singapore, and Thailand.

As the group grew
larger and inducted Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam in the early
1990s, however, the political structure changed. Indeed, the new four
members' political systems and ideologies were, and still are, very
different from those of the original six. Nevertheless, ASEAN's
political culture, or the principle of non-interference, stayed the

To be fair, ASEAN
did surprise the world in 2003 when it urged Burma's military rulers
to free Ms Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy secured a
landslide, but unrecognized, victory in a 1990 election. Last year,
an ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus was even established,
with the primary aims of pushing democracy in Burma and helping free
Ms Suu Kyi. To ASEAN's credit, the pressure it exerted in the past
led to Burma giving up its scheduled turn as the chair of the
association last year (the Philippines took the position, as it was
next in line).

And at first in
September, when the Burmese junta cracked down brutally on
protestors, ASEAN initially showed that it was breaking away from its
excessively polite political culture and the principle of
non-interference. Singapore’s Lee, who currently chairs the
group, said ASEAN cannot "credibly remain silent or uninvolved
in this matter."

reconciliation means opening of meaningful dialogue with Aung San Su
Kyi and the NLD (National League for Democracy); (it) means releasing
political detainees, including Aung San Su Kyi; (it) means moving
forward to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy and to address
the economic hardships of the population of Myanmar," he said.

But, alas, ASEAN is
not in favor of sanctions or dismembering Burma, as the US Senate and
the Human Rights Watch Group have urged, although during the summit,
ASEAN did make its position clear that Burma cannot go back to the
status quo — a position obscured by the cave-in on Gambari's
briefing. By all accounts, ASEAN is the loser, having first attempted
to discipline Burma and then being forced to back away. In addition,
international outrage over Burma's military crackdown is stalling
ASEAN's trade negotiations with the United States and causing serious
diplomatic difficulties with the European Union

This is no way for
ASEAN to maintain its credibility. Now that it has broken its premise
of non-interference through its statements and actions towards ASEAN
thus far, maintaining the principle, if anything, will make ASEAN

Burma, as a
consequence, will get spoiled again, as it knows that it can continue
to keep Aung San Suu Kyi under arrest and suppress democracy and
ASEAN won't do a thing since it is considered an internal matter. Not
only has ASEAN continued to back the wrong horse, but it has lost its
face in the international community.


The writer is a
Jakarta-based columnist. More of his writings can be read at