(photo credit: AP)
Southeast Asian leaders adopted a landmark charter Tuesday that seeks to promote free trade and human rights, but their vision to create an integrated, EU-style bloc is being marred by Myanmar's snub to democracy.
In a diplomatic bungle, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations also abruptly withdrew an invitation to UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari to address Asian leaders after Myanmar objected.
They further rejected calls to suspend Myanmar from the bloc to punish the junta's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that left 15 people dead in September, and its refusal to free opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"ASEAN Leaders will strive to prevent the Myanmar issue from obstructing our efforts to deepen integration and build an ASEAN Community," Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his opening remarks at the annual summit.
Still, ASEAN leaders urged Myanmar's junta to open a "meaningful dialogue" with Suu Kyi, release her from house arrest, free all political detainees and work toward a "peaceful transition to democracy."
The key event of the gathering was the adoption of the ASEAN Charter after nearly three years of haggling.
The long-overdue ASEAN Charter is aimed at formally turning the 40-year-old organization, often derided as a toothless talk shop, into a rules-based legal entity. That means ASEAN can sue and be sued under the charter, and will be held accountable for all the treaties and agreements it signs. It will also set up enforceable financial, trade and environmental rules.
One of the most significant pledges in the charter is to set up a regional human rights body. Critics note, however, that it will have limited impact, given that it will not be able to punish governments that violate the human rights of their citizens.
Negotiators have watered it down by dropping earlier recommendations to consider sanctions, including possible expulsion, in cases of serious breaches of the covenant by member nations.
"Of course there has been some watering down," said former Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas, who helped draft the charter. Still, "I think it's a good step forward; it's a momentous step forward."
Charm Tong, a Shan refugee from Myanmar and well-known human rights activist who was welcomed by US President George W. Bush at that White House last year, called the ASEAN Charter a sham for caving into Myanmar, also known as Burma.
"ASEAN is shameful because it washes its hands off Burma, and passed on the burden of dealing with Burma to the UN," Tong said in a statement released by the Solidarity for Asia Peoples Advocacies.
Bodyguards for Myanmar's Foreign Minister, Nyan Win, pushed away reporters trying to get him to comment on the debate. "I have no comment on that question," Nyan Win said when asked about why the junta would not release Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo warned Manila was unlikely to ratify the ASEAN Charter unless Myanmar restores democracy and frees Suu Kyi.
"The expectation of the Philippines is that if Myanmar signs the charter, it is committed to returning to the path of democracy and releasing Aung San Suu Kyi," Arroyo told Myanmar's Prime Minister Thein Sein during a meeting Monday.
"Until the Philippine Congress sees that happen, it would have extreme difficulty in ratifying the ... charter," she said.
The Charter must be ratified by a Cabinet decision, referendums or by parliaments of member countries, a process likely to take a year. The pact will collapse if one country fails to ratify it.
Myanmar is satisfied with the document, Myanmar senior diplomat U Aung Bwa told AP. "Myanmar will go along; all's well that ends well," he said.
ASEAN was founded during the Cold War years as an anti-communist coalition, evolving into a trade and political bloc. It consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
They will hold a second conclave Wednesday, known as the East Asia Summit, with leaders of China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
Lee, the chairman of ASEAN this year, had invited Gambari to address the expanded summit about the progress he has made with Myanmar's junta. He announced late Monday that objections by Myanmar and other ASEAN leaders forced him to withdraw the invitation, even as Gambari was en route to Singapore from New York.
Instead, Lee said, Gambari would meet with leaders and brief them individually.
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