Editorial Comment, Financial Times, 19 Nov 2007

Recent demonstrations in Burma, led by Buddhist monks and crushed by the military junta, have provided an uncomfortable but useful dose of reality for south-east Asian leaders ahead of the signing of their flawed constitution in Singapore on Tuesday.

Forty years after the organisation was founded, the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations see their new charter as a sign that Asean has come of age. Sadly, the wording of the charter, including the vague promise of a regional human rights body, merely exposes Asean’s weaknesses and the ethical vacuum at its heart.

The problem with Asean is not simply the economic gap between the richest members, led by Singapore and Malaysia, and the poorest, such as Burma and Laos, although that does make it hard to create the common market promised for 2015.

A bigger difficulty is that Asean is not, like Europe, a collection of nations with common values, but a collection of regimes with common interests. Those interests, whether they concern foreign policy or the perpetuation of authoritarian rule at home, partly reflect Asean’s cold war origins as an anti-communist security group and are rarely shared by the “peoples of the member states” of Asean in whose name the charter is written.

Asian leaders have portrayed disagreement over Burma as a dispute between east and west. An Asian desire for “consensus” is supposed to explain the lack of enforcement mechanisms or punishments for offending member states in the charter. Yet there is little doubt that south-east Asian citizens would (if consulted) be as vocal as Europeans or Americans in supporting the enforcement of human rights for Burmese and other Asians.

Given their own divisions, Europeans cannot be smug about the writing of regional constitutions. Europe, however, already has executive, judicial and legislative bodies to ensure application of common laws and policies. Asean does not.

Even when it does espouse justice, democracy and human rights, the Asean charter – according to drafts that have been leaked, for the text has not been divulged to the public in advance – immediately backs down and says these noble ideals must be applied with “due regard to the rights and responsibilities of the member states”. That, like the injunction against anarchy, is a cop-out with which every Burmese general can feel comfortable.

If Asean wants to be internationally respected and to make its mark in a world obsessed by the economic giants of China and India, its leaders will have to come up with something better than this.