Burma once again likely to steal ASEAN show
By Ruth Youngblood
The Nation-Deutsche Presse-Agentur
Ministers from the Association of of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are expected to tackle soaring fuel and food prices and a barrage of other problems at their meeting Monday, but Burma is once again likely to steal the show.
Senior officials from the 10-member grouping well remember how the signing in November of the landmark ASEAN Charter - meant to transform the 10-member grouping into a legal entity - was set to be a historic event.
It was abruptly overshadowed by the Burma regime's decision to call off a scheduled ASEAN leaders meeting with UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, an embarrassment for the organization and host Singapore.
With an assessment report of the damage wrought by Cyclone Nargis to be presented Monday at the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting, Burma will again take centre stage. The United Nations is hoping for an outpouring of 480 million dollars over the next year in emergency relief for the victims of Cyclone Nargis.
"It's been a long year, quite an eventful one year" under Singapore's chairmanship of ASEAN, said the city-state's Foreign Minister George Yeo.
The cyclone in early May led to a stand-off between a suspicious Burmese government and a global community eager to render aid but kept at bay as the ruling junta initially rejected outside assistance and foreign relief workers. ASEAN was the catalyst to get the aid moving, but it was nearly three weeks after the disaster.
In a positive move, Burma has become the latest to sign the ASEAN charter, leaving Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam as the only ones yet to do so.
The charter commits ASEAN members "to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms."
The ministers will focus on two key components of the charter: creation of a human-rights council and a mechanism for dispute settlement.
On human rights, Yeo said that ASEAN wants to build an agreed foundation of common human rights that would serve the group's regional construction and the interests of its people.
"Whether or not the human right body we establish will have teeth, I don't know. But it will certainly have a tongue, and I hope it will have a sharp tone," he said.
Burma's dismal human rights record has prompted sanctions by both the United States and European Union.
Senior officials preparing for the ministerial session want a recommendation that Burma release all political detainees included in a joint statement to be issued after the ministers' meeting.
If accepted, it would indicate a further toughening of ASEAN's stance.
"ASEAN could have done much more in responding to Cyclone Nargis if the Burma government had been forthcoming earlier to the receipt of international assistance," said K Kesavapany, director of the Institute of South-East Asian Studies.
"Despite this, it was ASEAN's persistence which finally enabled the international community to gain entry into Burma and facilitate the flow of trade."
The rotating ASEAN chairmanship passes to Thailand on July 24.
ASEAN includes Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Burma.