Musa Hitam delivers lecture at ASEAN Business and Investment Summit (file photo)
Musa Hitam delivers lecture at ASEAN Business and Investment Summit (file photo)

Leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations are marking the first anniversary of grouping's constitution, known as the ASEAN Charter.

Created four decades ago as an economic grouping, ASEAN ratified its charter last December in an effort to expand its influence in Asian and global affairs. Much of the past year has been spent choosing representatives and establishing committees, such as the human rights body, controversial for its inability to pose sanctions against members like Burma.

At a forum in Jakarta Wednesday to mark the charter's anniversary, Musa Hitam, a diplomat from Malaysia who helped draft the charter, said its accomplishments have been monumental.

"Can you imagine an organization starting without any rules and regulations, yet surviving for 40 years? If you look at it in that context, you will then appreciate that the process of regional integration is the most challenging in the modern history of the world," Musa said.

The charter creates three communities to deal with the economy, politics and security, and culture and society.

ASEAN diplomats say the goal of achieving a single market is on track, with the signing of free-trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand and talks under way on agreements with China, India and South Korea.

The ambassadors at Wednesday's forum spoke about the need for better regional understanding through educational exchanges, interfaith dialogue and agreements to ease cross-border movements.

But integrating 10 nations with different cultures, religions and political systems provides huge challenges, particularly since ASEAN members avoid interfering in each other's affairs.

This has been a particularly troubling issue as other ASEAN members try to coax Burma, also called Myanmar, to allow greater political and economic freedom.

Rosario Gonzales Manalo is the Philippines ASEAN ambassador.

"We don't interfere in internal affairs but that does not mean that our foreign ministers and heads of states are not quietly persuading, talking dialoging with the authorities of Myanmar," Gonzales Manalo said. "And they won't come out and tell you hallelujah we talked with Myanmar and this is what's going to be done. They would never do that in ASEAN."

Some critics say the charter fails to resolve issues of how members handle diplomatic squabbles and old political tensions. But the ambassadors gathered Wednesday said ASEAN has delivered, it has attracted international attention, even under the shadow of its goliath neighbors, China and India. And the charter ensures its future.