Asean to sign charter despite Myanmar crisis


Singapore : Leaders of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) prepared Tuesday to sign a landmark charter that upholds democracy and human rights after failing to rein in its member Myanmar.

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Hopes had been high that the signing of the charter would be the 40-year-old organisation’s finest hour, but the 10-nation bloc’s handling of the violent suppression of pro-democracy protests in Myanmar in September marred the milestone.

The group rejected calls to suspend Myanmar over the violent crackdown and then caved in to demands by the military-ruled country to prevent a UN special envoy from giving a key address to Asean and East Asian leaders at the Singapore summit.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the start of the meetings Tuesday that efforts to accelerate and deepen regional integration must continue despite the Myanmar controversy.

“The signing of the charter later today is just the beginning to a longer, continuing journey that all Asean members must take,” he said. “Asean must gradually adapt to a culture of compliance and implementation. Only then can we make sustained progress by the next summit in Bangkok.”

“Asean leaders will strive to prevent the Myanmar issue from obstructing our efforts to deepen integration and build an Asean community,” he added.

Shortly before midnight, the leaders announced they had called off the address by UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, which had been scheduled for Wednesday.

While the leaders stressed to Myanmar that it must move up the implementation of promised democratic reforms, the cancellation of Gambari’s address has disappointed some members of Asean and observers.

“The principle of consensus has again prevailed as it will prevail in the future with regard to issues concerning questions of sovereignty of the member states,” noted Tobias Rettig, a political science professor at Singapore Management University.

A senior Philippine official said President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was among those dissatisfied with Myanmar’s explanation so far.

“We’ve always tried to understand the situation, but it’s time for the other side to show something,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It has come to a point where their words do not match their action.”

Asean — which consists of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar — has been under mounting criticism over its failure to take a tougher stance against Yangon.

US Trade Representative Susan Schwab warned that Asean’s relationship with the country once known as Burma “can’t be business as usual”.

“The reputation and credibility of Asean as an organisation has been called into question because of the situation in Burma,” she said.

Aside from committing members to democracy and protection of human rights, the charter also mandates the establishment of a human rights body in the region and aims to turn the region into an European Union-style market.

The signing comes two months after Myanmar’s military junta violently suppressed pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks. By government estimates, 15 people were killed in the crackdown in Yangon, but diplomats and rights groups said the death toll was much higher. Thousands of people were also arrested, and Amnesty International said 700 people were still under detention.