By BUNN NAGARA
(The Star) - Malaysia may, in effect, lead Asean countries to more realistic and progressive human rights practices.
OBSERVERS at Asean’s Ministerial Meeting in Singapore over the week might have sensed the huge double challenges to the region from the very start of the gathering.
With Singapore as host, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his opening speech that Asean would soon start work on two key areas of its landmark charter – an Asean human rights body and a dispute settlement mechanism – when both objectives seem more remote than ever.
These are highly charged, predictably controversial and inevitably convoluted issues at the best of times. For Asean to dive into them now shows either courage or foolhardiness, but most of all a pained sense of necessity.
Even as delegates spoke, an implacable Myanmar insisted Aung San Suu Kyi would not be freed anytime soon, and Thailand and Cambodia were at each other’s throats. And none of these predicaments seemed likely to see early resolution, but quite the reverse.
News reports flew back and forth about 400 additional Thai troops at the border, then more than 500, a Thai estimate of 1,000 Cambodian soldiers, then a Cambodian estimate of 4,000 Thai troops. Media on both sides did not disappoint, stirring the pot to bring it to the boil.
To add spice, a nationally besieged Thai premier and his hopeful Cambodian counterpart campaigning for today’s election let the nationalist temperatures rise. The politicians did not disappoint either, at least in being political operators.
Yet all this does not even begin to consider other intractable issues, from rival maritime claims between Singapore and Malaysia to more complex rival claims over the Spratly Islands and other territory. Asean has never been accused of busying itself with philosophical questions alone, and these days there is no shortage of real-life problems.
Developing a regional human rights regime, properly codified and documented, remains another minefield. The week’s events across the Asean meeting table showed political positioning moving more than diplomatic agreement, indicating more hard labour ahead.
Not so long ago, progress in talks on human rights and democracy saw two distinct groups within Asean: Indonesia (post-Suharto) and the Philippines (long post-Marcos) heading the older set of members looking confident, and the newer CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) members oozing reluctance.
For a time, the situation was complicated by Singapore and Thailand soft-pedalling Myanmar for self-interested reasons of business investment. That changed quickly after Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled as Thai premier.
The Malaysian approach
Both countries then came closer to Malaysia’s position, where a vocal bipartisan caucus of parliamentarians and supportive NGOs had been pressing for progress in Myanmar. Physically located between Thailand and Singapore, Malaysia seemed to be easing a geographically contiguous strand of Asean closer to the positions of Indonesia and the Philippines.
Now that has changed again, if only relatively. Recent reports suggest that on the specific issue of the proposed Asean human rights body, Singapore has moved towards the CLMV “corner” while Malaysia has become identified with a more progressive “old Asean”.
Central to some countries’ reservations about the proposed body’s terms of reference are the likely scope and impact on member governments’ own behaviour. How to manage protests, control dissent or conduct “political business as usual” with deterrents against state excesses?
This situation is not limited to South-East Asia or developing regions. Even as the world’s sole superpower, the United States refuses to ratify the International Criminal Court (ICC) for fear its own president and soldiers abroad would get caught in it, despite the praises for Serbia’s dispatch of Radovan Karadzic to the ICC.
For its part, Malaysia is not advocating a free-for-all in the rights body’s terms of reference. Seldom is anything in international diplomacy black-and-white, least of all when building an Asian human rights institution.
Malaysia’s nuanced approach comes with what Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim calls an “Asian value system” in human rights considerations. He has raised the point before in the performing arts as Malaysia’s former Culture, Arts and Heritage minister.
In international politics, however, there can be over-zealous knee-jerk reactions to any official consideration of “Asian values” in a human rights context, with notions of authoritarian officialdom or worse. Properly interpreted, that need not be so.
The tried and tested system in Asia of settling disputes, for example, could see fair and just arbitration through peer nations, regional community councils, an impartial third party, a combination of legitimate stakeholders or some other variant of what indigenous communities in Pacific Asia have practised for centuries.
Knowledge is still lacking about East Asia’s methods, as a question at a recent Shanghai workshop about Confucius’ views showed. Even for a classical traditionalist like him the people came first, since it is said corruption and injustice would themselves justify a mass revolt.
Conceived diligently to be practicable and presented carefully to avoid misinterpretation, Malaysia can take a more enlightened approach to the proposed rights body’s terms of reference. In doing so it can help lead Asean countries to a common position that promises better rights observances across the region, in part by showing there is nothing to fear by being fair.