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ASEAN must be transformed or replaced

A proposal to achieve a more effective and democratic regional organization

| Thailand
A screen shows ASEAN leaders attending an online summit, pictured in Hanoi in November 2020: one solution would be to begin a process requiring its authoritarian member states to initiate democratization or lose their membership.   © VNA/AP

Kasit Piromya was Thai foreign minister from 2008 to 2011.

The Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar came as a shock to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, brutally exposing its fundamental shortcomings as a cohesive regional grouping. It is time to establish a new structure that can provide much-needed leadership and coordination.

Amid hesitation and awkwardness, it is clear that ASEAN's time-honored principle of noninterference in the affairs of member states has become a barrier to resolving the Myanmar crisis. The organization's lack of a common value system makes it unable to recognize that denial of freedom of expression is an infringement of human rights. Worse, it appears to have accepted that law can be used as a political weapon to justify the use of force and the destruction of democracy, freedom and justice.

The organization's failure also demonstrates that authoritarian states, which now form a majority of the ASEAN membership, cannot effectively reprimand like-minded states. This amounts to collusion among authoritarian regimes to deny freedom and justice while supporting the suppression of civil rights and democracy.

The only possible conclusion is that ASEAN lacks both the will and the competence to serve the common good. It must therefore be transformed or replaced, with the objective of empowering the people. And its successor's foundation must rest on the principle that all member states must be democracies.

ASEAN leaders convene in Jakarta on Apr. 24: the organization's failure demonstrates that authoritarian states cannot effectively reprimand like-minded states.   © Indonesian Presidential Palace/Reuters

In view of the continued failure of ASEAN to stop the killings in Myanmar, a small group of regional politicians and thinkers has developed a proposal for a replacement organization based on universal values and democratic principles. Our proposal for a South East Asia Community, launched on May 12, would also abandon the principle of noninterference when human rights are at stake. We are inviting citizens throughout Southeast Asia to help to develop the concept.

ASEAN had achieved its original goals, adopted when it was established at the height of the Cold War in 1967, which were to end confrontational territorial disputes and mutual distrust, promote cooperation, peace and prosperity and curb the expansion of communism in the region.

The founding statesmen, who came from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, saw their collective vision and common goals achieving tangible results during their lifetimes. There was peace. There was prosperity. Communism was confronted and repulsed.

Later, ASEAN also played a significant role in ending Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia and establishing peace in that country. Its leaders had sufficient courage and determination to steer it successfully through the Cold War period. The 1990s and 2000s saw the spread of global market forces to Indochina and eventually Myanmar, while ASEAN grew from five to 10 member states.

The enlargement of ASEAN reflected the desire of its members to end ideological antagonism and historical tensions so that the people of the region could live in peace through mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. They saw a brighter future in which the contracting countries would move forward together to achieve prosperity through connectivity, interdependence and shared technological progress in a globalized world.

There was a feeling of confidence and optimism. There was a recognition that Southeast Asia had the potential to become a major global power because of the region's geographical location astride two great oceans, which provide access to the world's largest sea lanes alongside abundant natural resources, a growing population and sizable markets.

A significant milestone came in 2007, when the member states adopted the ASEAN Charter, establishing the group as a rule-based entity. The charter enshrined democracy and human rights among its principles, which implied a moral commitment by each member state to those ideals. ASEAN also set up an intergovernmental human rights commission.

But its commitment to human rights has been fatally undermined by the fact that -- unlike the European Union -- membership is not based on a requirement that members must have democratic political systems committed to universal values.

The member states have always used a variety of political models. But most have recently shifted toward some form of authoritarianism, with renewed emphasis on national sovereignty and the principle of noninterference in each other's affairs. In general, the member states have ignored their commitments to uphold universal values such as the protection of civil liberties.

ASEAN survived the Cold War with varying ideological and political regimes because its members shared the overriding objective of resisting communism and allying with the West. In the post-Cold War period, the member states united around the principle of achieving common prosperity in a peaceful environment.

But ASEAN cannot survive if it fails to live up to a common belief in openness and freedom. It cannot ignore its responsibility for upholding human rights and resisting authoritarianism if it is to maintain credibility. Issues far away may be of less concern, but the organization cannot ignore problems in its own backyard.

One solution would be for ASEAN to begin a process over the next decade requiring its authoritarian member states to initiate democratization or lose their membership. Although that might lead to splits among the region's leaders, the ultimate decision belongs to the 650 million people of ASEAN who would no doubt prefer to live without fear and coercion.

If ASEAN opts to maintain the status quo, it is destined for decline and disintegration. If that happens, our proposals for a replacement community offer a viable alternative. The citizens of Southeast Asia have the ability and the will to build a new ASEAN. It is, after all, their future.

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