By Hakim Joe 

Here we go again. Aung San Suu Kyi was once again found guilty of violating the terms of a previous five-year house arrest order and sentenced to yet another one and a half years of house arrest. That this was a political motivated decision by the military government of Myanmar to stop the Lady from contesting in the next elections (scheduled for next year) is beyond doubt.

The question of why ASEAN needs to suffer having such a regime within its ranks is beyond reasonable justification. But then again, the member states of ASEAN retains the same type of mentality and political forcefulness that it comes as no surprise that “birds of the same feather, flocks together.” 

ASEAN is made up of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Of these 10 nations, we have six so-called different types of democracies, one military dictatorship, two socialist (single-party) and one sultanate (under martial law)? What does one call such a grouping of differing ideologies?  

The Myanmar government is not the sole ASEAN member that finds ways to incarcerate and victimize its political opposition and to repress civil liberties. The other six democratic governments have done exactly the same. Cambodia (banishment of Sam Rainsy), Indonesia (autocracy under Soekarno), Malaysia (jailing of Anwar Ibrahim), Philippines (assassination of Benigno Aquino), Singapore (jailing of Dr. Chee Soon Juan) and Thailand (military coup ousting Thaksin Shinawatra) have at one time or another suppressed human rights by force. Brunei is still effectively under martial law and the word of the Sultan is law. Laos and Vietnam are one-party socialist (communist) states that tolerate no opposition. 

ASEAN is also a grouping which has a non-intervention policy of its fellow members. Non-intervention in this case refers to zero criticism, censure or denunciation of its brothers-in-arms regardless of how the neighboring countries are governed. One country could be systematically exterminating its minorities and another member nation cannot show overt signs of disapproval. Another country might be importing illegal firearms and yet all other member country must remain silent. So, what does hypocritical ASEAN really stands for? Whatever it stands for or attempts to represent, all one can say that it is no friend of human rights and civil liberties. 

Look at the five founding fathers of ASEAN. Adam Malik (ex-kidnapper and alleged CIA operative) from Indonesia, Abdul Razak (NEP Supremo and champion of Ketuanan Melayu) from Malaysia, S.Rajaratnam (rejected the ASEAN proposed enforcement capacity of the human rights body) from Singapore, Narciso Ramos (father of military strongman turned politician Fidel Ramos) from the Philippines and Thanat Khoman (Preah Vihear controversy) from Thailand do not exactly instill any confidence of sorts. From the very beginning, ASEAN was a convenient grouping of neighborly countries that has nothing in common and without a common goal. The Bangkok Declaration of 1967 only just about covers economic ties as its assumptions to both social and cultural representations are for show only. 

So, what’s wrong with ASEAN? Economically, it is a region of different developing countries vying for the same contracts and benefits from other first-world nations who intend to invest here. Culturally, it is a jumbled mass of diversity without common grounds. Politically, we have communism, military dictatorship, sultanate, constitutional democracy, constitutional monarchy, electoral democracy, unicameral parliamentary democracy and presidential constitutional republics. Religion is across the board from Islam to Buddhism to Roman Catholic to Confucianism to atheism. Ethnically, it is even worse with a multitude of indigenous people and settlers that makes social integration a massive headache. Linguistically, at least these ASEAN nations speak English (which is neither their mother tongue) or their version of what is English. 

Even the establishment of ASEAN was anything but a formality when these Southeast Asian countries decided to form an association to safeguard their own interests. First we have the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), composed of Malaya, the Philippines, and Thailand (in1961) which Indonesia did not want to join. Then there was the Maphilindo (in 1963), a combined name of Malaya, the Philippines, and Indonesia which was a no go owing to the military disputes between the member countries. SEATO was a blatant waste of time as the lack of agreement between the member states made it unviable. The Asian Pacific Council (ASPAC) and the Southeast Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SEAARC) were similarly impossible to maintain as each individual country seek opportunities that were advantageous to themselves only. 

ASEAN (formed in 1967) is basically a loose organization whereby its three basic principles constitute a respect for state sovereignty, non-intervention, and renunciation of the threat or use of force in resolving disputes. ASEAN did not base its foundation on formal dispute-resolution mechanisms and hence is not a collective security arrangement. This means that if Thailand decides to whack Singapore or vice versa, Malaysia (situated in between) will just have to sit down and watch it happen. 

ASEAN's primary objectives were to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to promote regional peace and stability. Whether these are the actual objectives are to be seen as it can be said that the ten member nations are atrocious (and notorious) when it comes to human rights and civil liberties in their respective countries. But then again, ASEAN members did not say that they will improve human rights and civil liberties within their own borders. 

Each founding member had its own agenda when joining up – Indonesia needed to restore its relations in the region, but it also identified ASEAN as an opportunity both to exercise regional leadership and to diminish the capacity of external powers to influence events in Southeast Asia. Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines supported ASEAN as a way to constrain a militant Indonesia.

To Singapore, belonging to ASEAN symbolized that it was accepted and tolerated by its neighbours as an equal state after seceding from Malaysia. For Malaysia and the Philippines, ASEAN was an opportunity to enhance their national prestige on a global platform. The Philippines additionally hoped that ASEAN would strengthen Filipinos' Asian identity and trading links, thereby counterbalancing the Philippines' relationship with the United States. Thailand hoped that ASEAN would become the basis for the "collective political defense" of the region, forming an organization that could possibly supplement and perhaps eventually replace its own security relationship with the United States. 

“Will ASEAN work?” Still existing from its establishment in 1967 until today, it does not automatically grant them success. The question now becomes “Is ASEAN working?” This is because the decisions agreed upon in the ASEAN are consensus oriented.

ASEAN undertakes to solicit agreement from most of the states. However, "consensus does not assume that everyone must agree; it assumes at least that no one objects to the proposal." In other words, consensus does not require unanimity but rather leads to finding a common interest that could appeal to the whole.

At the beginning it was not that difficult as agreements were entirely economically orientated and there were only five democratic member countries. These days there are ten and no longer are all member countries democratically inclined. Anyway, the ASEAN charter does not enforce a collective agreement and each member is allowed to disagree entirely with any accord that is proposed. One can even walk out from the conference if one is sufficiently pissed off (without penalty), which Hun Sen (former Khmer Rouge cadre) almost did in the last conference in Thailand. 

In conclusion, ASEAN is like ASA, Maphilindo, SEATO, ASPAC and SEAARC – defunct, obsolete, redundant, superfluous, pointless, insignificant etcetera. Politics aside, ASEAN is too small even to be effective as an economic integration grouping even though the combined population exceeds those of the EU (which is an economic powerhouse). The lack of balance between national priorities and regional interests become a major impediment to a sustained integration as a whole. Moreover, the very principle that ASEAN practises – setting aside conflicting problems in order to prevent military confrontations – makes the association powerless, toothless and helpless. To avoid the problems means leaving them unsolved. A bloody waste of money, effort and time, if you ask me.

The other predicaments include the unrepresentative representation of the society at large and its failure to manage military concerns effectively and proficiently. As the representatives from each member country are from the educated social class, they have problems representing the value systems and social norms in their society at large.

Additionally, although the perception of a common external threat had played an important role in ASEAN's creation and grew more important as the organization developed, there have not been sufficient consensuses amongst the ASEAN states on security issues. Suspicion and misgivings among the ASEAN nations remains awkward, and the ASEAN members lack the military power needed to form a credible bloc. Power afterall is projected from the barrel of a gun and ASEAN just do not have sufficiently big guns to project such an image.

Both the persistent crisis that occur in the "world's most persistently problematic areas of political friction" and the organization's inability to effectively deal with the internal conflicts remain a crucial problem ASEAN has yet to overcome, and would probably never surmount.

Altogether, ASEAN's multiplicity in diverse realms hinders the member states from achieving a realistic agreement on specific issues and programs. The assortment of nations does not lead to much benefit from economic integration either. The principles ASEAN adheres to thwart the way to development; in short, it needs to overcome a lot of difficulties with no practical hope in sight. The word “progressive-cooperation” here is a misnomer. 

Coming back to Aung San Suu Kyi, the initial sentence was for another three years house arrest but this was “reduced” by the military regime on “humanitarian grounds”. Thank God the Lady remains steadfast in her quest for democracy in a repressive country that remains part of the ASEAN grouping.  

Shouldn’t we follow suit?