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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Let ‘the ASEAN way’ take reins in region’s democratization

High-level tourists: ASEAN foreign ministers ( from right) Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia, Wunna Maung Lwin of Myanmar, Thongloun Sisoulith of Laos, Hor Namhong of Cambodia, and ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan pose for photographs during a tour to the famed Angkor Wat after the ASEAN Foreign Minister’s retreat forum in Siem Reap province, some 230 kilometers northwest Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Wednesday. AP/Heng Sinith

ASEAN enjoyed good news this week as Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi confirmed her parliamentary bid and her Malaysian counterpart Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted of sodomy charges by a Malaysian court.

Observers here have agreed, however, that political reforms in ASEAN will remain sluggish, and the member states have their own “ASEAN way”, which prevents any chance for the region’s own version of the Arab Spring.

“The news [from Myanmar and Malaysia] surely brings a fresh wind to ASEAN. Reforms are indeed ongoing [in the two countries],” Parahyangan University ASEAN expert Mira Permatasari said Wednesday.

“But we can’t be too optimistic over how this will impact on the region. After all, ASEAN has that ASEAN way, with its non-interference principle.”

Although allowing only slow political process, Mira said the principle was a fit for ASEAN and was partly the reason why the organization could survive since its establishment in 1967.

She added other ASEAN member states should not pressure Myanmar or Malaysia to speed up their political reforms, saying such efforts might harm stability in the region instead.

Indonesia Center for Democracy, Diplomacy and Defense researcher Teuku Rezasyah extended the call against interference to countries outside the region, saying it might be counterproductive to the ongoing reforms.

He specifically commended the Indonesian government’s respect for the ongoing political process in Myanmar, and its establishment of good communications with both the military-linked government and the opposition.

“Indonesia has been paying attention to the process, while Western nations see only the end result but hardly the process,” Rezasyah said.

Separately, University of Indonesia international relations observer Makmur Keliat said the reforms in Myanmar and Malaysia were expected to support political reforms within ASEAN in general, particularly in regards to its handling of human rights issues.

“[These reforms] might not have a direct impact, but they can hopefully ease the review of the ASEAN Charter two years from now, specifically the clauses on the ASEAN Human Rights Council,” Makmur said.

The council, established two years ago, has been considered toothless and has hardly addressed human rights issues in the region.

Political reforms within ASEAN have been subject to the close watch of Western nations, including the US and Australia.

In his visit to Indonesia on Monday, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd reiterated his government’s interest in Myanmar’s domestic affairs, commending the Indonesian government for its soft approach to the country that will chair ASEAN in 2014.

“I congratulate Indonesia through ASEAN for its fine diplomacy on Burma. This has been good work by our friends in ASEAN, and good work, in particular, by Foreign Minister Natalegawa,” Rudd said.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa recently visited Yangon in December, meeting with both his Myanmarese counterpart U Wunna Maung Lwin and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Marty said on the sidelines of the visit that Indonesia would continue working closely with Myanmar in promoting democracy and political reforms in the country, especially through capacity building programs.

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