Oct 22, 2012

Thailand - EU's Nobel Prize: lessons for Asean

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For Asean supporters, a Nobel Peace Prize for the organisation is just a matter of time. After all, two Southeast Asians, Dawn Aung San Suu Kyi and Jose Ramos Horta, have already got their prizes years ago.

The first recipient is from Burma, a member of Asean in 1997. Horta, the former president and prime minister of East Timor, has been pushing for his country's membership in Asean since 2002. These two leaders would have a certain level of influence in the conducts of Asean policies in all areas in the years to come.

When the Norwegian Peace Committee awarded the Peace Prize to European Community, it cited the EU past record in promoting peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights. The organisation has cemented relations among former enemies and engaged them to promote peace and economic prosperity. The union has also successfully enlarged its organization to include former communist countries in East Europe which has increased the democratic space and respect of human rights throughout all Europe. If that is the main merit of EU peace prize candidature, there is no reason why Asean should not be in the shortlist. Of course, it would take years, if not decades, to produce tangible results on peace-making, national reconciliation, democracy and human rights.

Indeed, Asean is moving towards this direction. After the Asean Charter was adopted at the end of 2008, Asean countries in general have become more democratic and respect of human rights has become a noble goal. After all, they have to comply with the rules and guidelines contained in the charter and various blueprints, which comprised international norms and standards as well as the necessary ingredients of functioning democracies in other parts of the world. The most notable case is Myanmar's fascinating political and economic transformation in past 18 months. Other older democracies such as the Philippines and Thailand have also consolidated their political stability, albeit at snail paces, but nonetheless a progress.

It is interesting that the committee did not mention the EU economic cooperation, especially its current effort to resolve troubled Eurozone financial arrangement and how leading members such Germany or France are trying to cope with the burgeoning problems. Obviously, Asean's record on economic growth and cooperation could easily be highlighted and praised in comparison with other regional groupings such as African Union or South Asia Regional Cooperation.

In fact, one can also argue that Asean could be awarded the Nobel Prize in the field of economics because the grouping has done much better in this area than others fields of cooperation. So far, it has been able to weather the economic storm rather well, especially against the global economic crisis in 2008. The Asian countries suffered first and much earlier when the economic turbulence first hit in 1997. Their reactions could be a case study of how the countries in the region got together to end their economic vulnerability. Now, the so-called Chiang Mai Initiatives, which is now transformed into Multilateral Chiang Mai Initiatives, has become the symbol of regional resilience and effort to promote financial health in the region. East Asian countries have since then promoted this financial surveillance mechanism as a good example of the regional endeavours to increase financial stability - something which the EU can emulate.

Although Asean has a good track record on economic cooperation but of late quite a few Asean members have become more nationalistic. They realised that sometimes to give up some of the national interests for the collective goods would be difficult to do as it would caused uproars among domestic supporters. Even the core Asean members liked the Philippines, Indonesia including Thailand are reluctant to go all the way to accelerate the Asean economic integration. No wonder, the Asean Community, especially the economic part, would be further delay for another 364 days - postponement from January 1 to December 31, 2015. It has taken some times for Asean members to come to grips with their lukewarm commitment on free trade areas. New members have not fared better than the old members even though they are given additional grace period. They have to make progress on both tariff and non-tariff measures reductions such as trade facilitation and custom standards.

After the fall of Berlin Wall, Asean moved quickly to include Vietnam, its No. 1 enemy during the Cold War. In the beginning, skepticism was high that Vietnam would not be able to assimilate and blend into the pro-West grouping. However, after 17 years, Vietnam has turned into a main driving force in Asean. Other new members, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have in their own way contributed to the Asean overall profile. But it has been Myanmar, the member that was often condemned since its joined Asean in 1997, that has stolen the show since it embarked on simultaneous economic and political reforms since March 2010.

Before Myanmar's dominating the news headlines, it used to be the UN poster child - Cambodia that inspired the emerging democracies. After more than three decades of wars and conflict, peace was restored in Cambodia and turned the country of 13-million people into one of the rapid economic growth countries in the world. From 1992 onward, Cambodia has been portrayed as a former Indochinese nation that has successfully incorporated democracy with its former communist practices with the full fledged UN support. It was first from the new Asean members to allow free press and establishment of nongovernmental organizations. The country has all the trappings of democracy. But of late, criticisms are frequent and thick over the human violations and non-democratic governance - a huge contrast with the situation in 1990's. Pundits believed that this worsening human rights situation might cost the country its UN votes over its bit for a non-permanent member for 2013-2014 last week.

On balance, there are three particular areas that Asean can expect some progress but it will be a slow one. First, the grouping will set up the Asean Institute of Peace and Reconciliation next month, which will serve as a think tank for Asean and its Jakarta-based secretariat. In the future, when the level of comfort is reached, the AIPR can help Asean to think through with sensitive issues involving intra-Asean conflicts. This is a new area that has been implemented as underlined by the Asean Charter.

Second, the Asean leaders will issue the Asean Declaration of Human Rights after a year of heated debate between the Asean officials, members of AICHR (Asean Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights) and Asean-based civil society groups. The current draft, which was not supported by the latter, will be adopted at the summit. Meanwhile, the non-government sectors are working on its own version called the People's Declaration of Asean Human Rights to counter the Asean draft, which has been described as "lower than international standards."

Finally, to enforce disciplines and full compliance among members especially on issues related to peace building and conflicting resolutions as well as other related areas, the role of Asean Secretary General and his secretariat must be empowered, reorganised and strengthened further. There would a high-level task force to work on this issue across the three-pillar in the near future.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

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