Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Asean takes a step back

EDITORIAL Bangkok Post

The outcome of the Phuket meeting of Asean foreign ministers was disappointing. It must be hoped that when they are joined by other colleagues for bigger gatherings that they can get off ground zero. Allowing the region's harsher regimes to set the terms of a human rights council for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is likely to come back to haunt the group, and sooner rather than later. To recover from this setback, Thailand will have to press hard at meetings beginning today, or face stronger criticism for its term as Asean chairman.

By far the biggest letdown, verging on outright failure, was the cave-in by Thailand and other countries on the Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights. It is not fair to call this new body a toothless tiger - not yet, before it even gets a chance to act. But the terms under which the body will operate appear to make actual human rights progress a dream rather than an achievable goal. Come October, it is widely feared, the commission will begin issuing vague statements and wishful press releases, rather than strong rulings backed by action.

Kudos to Indonesia for being the last nation standing when the roll was called for a stronger commission. It was shocking to see Thailand among the first democratic countries to give up attempts to push for the stronger version of the human rights body. When Thailand turned its back on human rights advocates, so did Malaysia, and then the Philippines. Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda considered holding out and actually scuttling the almost meaningless agreement that emerged. Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, chairman of the meeting, said the result was a compromise, leaving observers wondering how anyone can compromise on such an important moral issue.

Now it is the turn of the Asean Regional Forum, a 27-nation group which meets under Asean, but discusses matters extending far beyond our region. The group includes the foreign ministers and equivalent from the United States, China, Russia, Japan and other important countries. The ARF has been focusing strongly on the threat to peace by North Korea. Pyongyang, which was brought into ARF through Thai diplomacy in 2000, has once again gone into insult mode, and will send only a relatively junior diplomat to represent the foreign minister.

Thailand is again the chairman, and it must not shy from responding to this careful North Korean show of attitude.

ARF was formed specifically to encourage openness in foreign affairs, including trade and military matters, because honesty and information-sharing openly promotes and keeps the peace. North Korea, if it has made any change during the past nine years, has become even more closed and secretive. Its nuclear weapons tests and unannounced missile firings are designed to be hostile and intimidating. Since this flies in the face of the ARF goals, and defies the real successes of the ARF in achieving regional peace, North Korea must be called to account; no compromising this time.

Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, the chairman of all Asean meetings this week, has already stated that the group cannot move off dead centre until there are changes in Burma. Now is the time to press ahead with that thought, with 25 other mostly sympathetic nations helping. At the southwest and northeast corners of our region, Burma and North Korea are the main blocks to progress, the worst human rights violators. They are major blocks to peace. Asean can recover some dignity by standing up to these two nations at the important meetings in Phuket.

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