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ASEAN Prepares to Make Itself Legal, But Change in Actions May be Slow in Coming

After 40 years of existence, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will formally establish itself as a legal entity when it signs its first constitution at next week's summit meeting in Singapore. The charter seeks to set rules and procedures for the regional bloc. But a draft of the document suggests that any enforcement mechanism will be weak, and the group will still have limited power to deal with troublesome members, like Burma. Naomi Martig reports from VOA's Asia News Center in Hong Kong.

Despite encompassing more than 500 million people, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has less standing than other major regional groups. ASEAN's percentage of world trade is small, and the organization is often criticized for not having the strength or the will to make an impact on humanitarian and social issues in its region.

Hopes are high among ASEAN leaders that after its first charter is signed in Singapore next Tuesday, governments and organizations will take it more seriously. But analysts have expressed doubts, and they point to ASEAN's inability to push for democratic change in Burma, one of ASEAN's 10 member nations, as the reason.

The European Union, the United Nations and the United States have taken action to try to force change in Burma. They have called on ASEAN to bring its organizational influence to bear on Burma's military government. But a lack of formal rules and enforcement powers has meant that ASEAN as a group has been unable to address the situation as strongly as the international community would like.

Roshan Jason, executive director of the ASEAN Interparliamentary Caucus, says that so far, the organization has only paid lip service to pressing for democratic reform in Burma.

"All ASEAN has done, many ASEAN countries have done, is fatten their pockets with economic dealings with the junta, and…once in awhile, on occasion, voice discontent or concern with the junta's brutality and lack of democratic reform. But it always goes back to the status quo," Jason said.

He says if ASEAN wants respect internationally, it will need a strong constitution, and the will to back that up with strong action.

"ASEAN has an opportunity to reinstate some of its pride and belief by the international community towards it, by being strong and coming out with a very strongly worded charter, and one which will be used immediately against any member countries which are violating human rights," he explained.

The international community has frequently criticized ASEAN leaders for their failure to take decisive action, especially during the recent violent crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma. While ASEAN did condemn the crackdown, member nations have resisted calls to impose sanctions.

Hiro Katsumata is an expert on ASEAN at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. He says a draft of the charter leaked to the media in recent weeks is a watered-down version of what the international community had hoped would be produced.

"The final draft of the charter seems to be a little bit softer in terms of this punishment and implementation and sanctions," he noted. "That demonstrates…the limitation on the part of ASEAN members to carry out its task or to make a departure from the traditional approach, (the) ASEAN way of diplomacy."

Katsumata says he does not think ASEAN's leaders want to address Burma's human rights situation too forcefully. He says they are concerned that if they place too much pressure on Burma, they will push the military government into an uncomfortably close relationship with China.

"If that happens, if Myanmar becomes China's proxy, then China will have free access to the Indian Ocean, this is the worst scenario for the rest of the ASEAN countries," he said.

Burma has a long coastline on the Indian Ocean, and Katsumata says both China and ASEAN want access to that strategic supply route.

ASEAN'S traditional policy of non-interference in members' internal affairs is included in the draft charter, as is the establishment of a human rights mechanism. But Katsumata says ASEAN leaders are also not likely to provide too clear a statement of what the human rights body will entail.

Doing so could force the leaders to address human rights concerns not only in Burma, but also in their own countries.

ASEAN is an odd collection of dictatorships, monarchies and underdeveloped democracies. It was founded by Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines in 1967, as an anti-communist group. Since then, it has grown to include Brunei, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Very few of those nations fully embrace human rights as they are defined internationally, and the countries' leaders are unlikely to commit ASEAN to ideals they themselves do not subscribe to.

How the new charter will affect investment and trade is expected to be a major topic of interest at the summit. Member nations have said they hope the charter will allow trading partners, such as the European Union, to have more confidence in ASEAN, because the Asian group will now be bound by clear regulations.

By adopting a constitution, ASEAN should have a greater ability to move, like the EU, toward common trade and investment policies.