by John Burton and Amy Kazmin in Singapore, Financial Times, 18 Nov 2007

Singapore has banned the standard practice of having delegate cars flying the pennants of their countries during this week’s annual summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations in the city-state.

The stated reason is to improve security by preventing delegates from being identified and exposing them to possible protests or attacks. But many suspect the real rationale is to shield Burma’s military rulers, including Thein Sein, the prime minister, from the public gaze.

The attendance of Burma’s officials, their first at an international forum following the recent violent crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy movement, has proved to be an embarrassment for Asean. Burma threatens to overshadow what had meant to be a landmark summit, including the signing of the 10-member group’s first constitution 40 years after its founding.

Asean hopes the charter will lay the foundation for a rapid move towards a common market by 2015 as southeast Asia seeks to counter competition for foreign investment from China and India. Although Asean, with a population of 560m, has a smaller market than its bigger rivals, the size of its combined $1,000bn economy is larger than that of India.

But critics say the Asean charter does not add much to the group’s clout to enforce agreements among its members. Asean’s failure to take tough measures against Burma is cited as one example of how the group will struggle to achieve cohesion as long as it sticks to the current policy of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.

The Asean charter, to be signed on Monday, upholds the principles of non-intervention and decision-making by consensus in spite of earlier recommendations by a group of elder statesmen that the organisation should be given more powers to punish recalcitrant members.

The lack of punitive measures means that reducing internal barriers to the free flow of goods, services and capital might be difficult to achieve. The goal of a common market is already considered daunting because of the wide disparities in wealth between rich countries such as Singapore and Malaysia and poor countries such as Laos and Cambodia.

The issue of Burma is seen as an early test of Asean’s commitment to reform. The charter includes a promise to set up a human rights body but it lacks details on how it would operate and a timetable for its implementation. “I’m not sure if it will have teeth but it will certainly have a tongue,” said George Yeo, Singapore foreign minister. “It will certainly have moral influence if nothing else.”

Analysts say that the principles elaborated in the charter will carry little clout if members know that they can flout them without consequence. “The degree to which Asean institutions are meaningful is always related to the nature of the regimes that compose Asean,” Michael Montesano, a south east Asia studies professor at the National University of Singapore, said. “It’s a club of governments whose origins lie in a distrust of change beyond their members’ control.”

Another test of Asean’s willingness to co-operate on a pan-regional basis concerns environmental issues, which Singapore, the current Asean chair, wants to highlight at the summit.

Affected by haze from forest fires to clear land in neighbouring Indonesia, the city-state has sought measures to reduce the problem. But that could prove to be an uphill struggle since the clearing of land for farms combined with illegal logging provide plenty of jobs in Indonesia.

Even less controversial measures, such as introducing an open skies agreement by 2015 to boost tourism, has been criticised by the International Air Transport Association as being too slow.

Asean is pinning hopes on staying relevant by promoting pan-Asian trade pacts, with south-east Asia forming the hub for a network of proposed bilateral agreements with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

But such deals have encountered problems. India, for example, wants to keep tariffs on southeast Asian exports of petroleum, palm oil and some agricultural products. Meetings with leaders from China, Japan, India and South Korea this week are meant to help resolve these issues.

Moreover, the inclusion of Burma in the proposed trade deals means that efforts by western countries to undermine the country’s military rules with economic sanctions will prove ineffective.