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Association of South East Asian Nations Enacts New Charter

  • Katie Hamann

The charter of the Association of South East Asian Nations now has official status, binding members to an enhanced legal framework. But as Asia begins to experience the full force of the global economic crisis it may be some time before the grouping begins to operate as a European Union-style community.

More than four decades after it came into being the Association of South East Nations on Monday become a legal entity and perhaps a new force for unity for its 10 members.

Speaking at a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers, Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called the charter's ratification a momentous moment, signaling the transformation of ASEAN.

"The charter can be the basis for speeding up and strengthening our regional interfaces. By virtue of its provisions we can enhance the process by which we are transforming ASEAN from a loose association to an ASEAN community, resting on the pillars of political security cooperation, economic cooperation and socio-cultural cooperation," said Mr. Yudhoyono.

The charter includes commitments to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance and respect for and promotion of human rights.

ASEAN's members are Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

They are home to half a billion people. In terms of development, they range from wealthy modern Singapore and Brunei to impoverished, agrarian Laos and Cambodia. Politically, members include democratic Philippines and Indonesia, and military-ruled Burma.

ASEAN's Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan says that all members have work to do on the charter's commitments.

"Democracy, it's a yo-yo in the system, it's a yo-yo in the region. Some countries used to be ahead of others, now they are behind. They are all in the process of transforming themselves to become more open, more participatory, more democratic. None of them is perfect," he said.

The charter was to have been inaugurated at the annual ASEAN summit in Thailand this month, but a political crisis there forced its postponement. Monday's meeting at the Jakarta secretariat was convened specially to enact the charter.

The charter opens the door to a single ASEAN market within seven years. However, the unfolding global economic crisis may yet block that goal. There are fears that the crisis may slow efforts to negotiate the free trade agreement.

ASEAN has also come under attack for failing to address human rights abuses by its member, particularly in military-ruled Burma.

Political analysts say the group will likely stick to its tradition of not interfering in each other's affairs.

But Secretary-General Surin says human rights advocates now have a legal document to add weight to their claims.

"And those of you out there who are interested in the issue of human rights can always make noise referring to this document. It has to begin somewhere, rooms for improvement. But to say this piece of paper, this document is worth nothing is not true," added Surin.

The postponed ASEAN summit is now planned for next February or March.

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