The Association of Southeast Asian Nations took a major step toward becoming an EU-style community on Monday with the passing into force of a new charter setting benchmarks for democracy, AFP reported.
The charter sets out rules of membership, transforms ASEAN into a legal entity and envisages a single free trade area by 2015 for the region of some 500 million people.
It came into force with a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers at the bloc's Jakarta secretariat, 30 days after Thailand became the last member to deposit its legal instrument of ratification.
"This is a momentous development when ASEAN is consolidating, integrating and transforming itself into a community," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said.
"It is achieved while ASEAN seeks a more vigorous role in Asian and global affairs at a time when the international sytem is experiencing a seismic shift," he added, referring to climate change and economic upheaval.
"Southeast Asia is no longer the bitterly divided, war-torn region it was in the 1960s and 1970s."
The charter was supposed to have been activated at a summit in Thailand but that meeting was postponed by a domestic political crisis which has only underscored the fragility of democracy and human rights across the region.
Thai Information Minister Mun Patanotai presided over the presentation ceremony as representative of the bloc's current presidency, as the country lacks a foreign minister to do the job.
"From a loose association of countries in the past ASEAN, is now a legal entity that aspires to become an ASEAN community in the future," he said.
The ceremony was overshadowed by the crisis in Thailand, where lawmakers cast ballots Monday for the country's third prime minister in four months after half a year of crippling protests.
The turmoil left 350,000 passengers stranded at Bangkok international airport earlier this month and has badly hit Thailand's image and its economy, with growth forecast at just two percent next year.