ASEAN summit strong on economic integration, weak on inclusiveness

Billed as a "people-centred" event, the 14th Summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) wound up Sunday with a strong message on economic integration but a mixed signal on people-inclusiveness in the 42-year-old forum, dpa reported.

  The South-east Asian leaders met Saturday and Sunday in Cha-am, 130 kilometres south-west of Bangkok, for the first such summit after the ASEAN Charter went into effect on December 15, 2008.

  "The charter provides the legal and institutional framework for ASEAN to be more rules-based, effective and people-centred organization paving the way for realizing the ASEAN Community by 2015," said the chairman's statement.

  "This ASEAN goal is made even more urgent by the global financial crisis," it said.

  The leaders agreed to strongly oppose protectionist measures as a means of coping with the global financial crisis and to hasten the region's economic integration, although no specific measures for speeding up free-trade measures were decided on.

  In this respect, the most substantive development in Cha-am was no doubt the signing on Friday of a free trade agreement between ASEAN and Australia and New Zealand, creating the region's largest such pact.

  On Saturday, for the first time, the ASEAN leaders met with representatives from civil society groups, parliamentarians, youth organizations and the private sector to demonstrate the grouping's efforts at people-centred inclusiveness.

  "This was something we never did before," Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said. "We wanted to hear the voices representing the ASEAN people and this will not be the first and last time but is the beginning of what will be institutionalized."

  The inclusive nature of the meeting, however, was tarnished by the insistence by the Cambodian and Myanmar prime ministers that the representatives from their respective countries be excluded from the civil society dialogue.

  ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, countries that are very different levels of economic and political development.

  The association has long been faulted for failing to exert effective pressure on its more controversial members to improve their human rights performance and implement political reforms.

  This year's summit saw the drafting of an ASEAN Human Rights body, but the terms of reference decided upon show it will be strong on promotion but weak on protection.

  In keeping with ASEAN's long-held tenet of respecting "non-interference," the body will have no mandate to investigate human rights abuses in member countries unless invited to do so, raising serious questions about its effectiveness in protecting ASEAN people from rights abuses.

  One of the most controversial issues on the sidelines of the summit was the problem of the Rohingya boat people, a stateless minority group from Myanmar's Arakan State whose sad plight was highlighted last December when the Thai military forced 1,000 Rohingya boat people back to sea in motorless vessels and without sufficient food.

  On the sidelines of the summit the ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to approach the issue regionally at the upcoming Bali Process meeting on the Indonesian island of Bali later this month.

  More importantly, the informal meeting resulted in Myanmar acknowledging that the Rohingyas originate in Myanmar, and to consider repatriating them under certain conditions.

  "Foreign Minister Nyan Win's statement that Myanmar does not deny the Rohingyas were from the Rakhine (Arakan) State, but that they are just not on the country's national minority list, is helpful," said one ASEAN minister, who asked to remain anonymous.

  Myanmar denies the Rohingyas are an ethnic minority group, but has said they will consider repatriating Bengalis, who are on its official list of 135 minority groups.

  The junta insists the Rohingyas are of Bangladesh, or Bengali, descent.

  There are 800,000 Rohingyas living in the Arakan State, denied citizenship, the right to own property and to work.

  "ASEAN counties should not export their problems to one another," said the ASEAN minister. "It is better if the problem is addressed at the source." 

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