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Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008

ASEAN through Asian eyes

A charter governing the activities of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was adopted at the 13th ASEAN summit held in Singapore in November on the 40th anniversary of the regional grouping.

Among other things, the document calls for the establishment of a Committee of Permanent Representatives in Jakarta and a target for the promotion of free trade among member states.

These achievements notwithstanding, many media commentaries in Europe and the United States have taken a pessimistic view of ASEAN's future. Its effectiveness as an economic union has been waning, these comments assert, pointing to the lack of growth in the level of interdependence in intraregional trade.

Reference is also made to the fact that investment flows into the region are not growing as fast as those into China and other countries. ASEAN's role as a forum for political consultation is given even lower marks. Because the body is guided by a "principle of noninterference in internal affairs," for example, ASEAN has been criticized for its failure to resolve the military rule in Myanmar.

These comments in the Western media reveal a lack of understanding about ASEAN's stature as a federation of sovereign states. In Europe, integration has been a process by which sovereign states have conceded parts of their sovereignty under mutual agreement and taken joint action toward common goals. This rests on the idea that there are certain values that must be shared by all, even if this entails a degree of compulsion.

ASEAN, though, does not necessarily follow this European model of restricting the sovereignty of member states and taking joint action toward common goals. The original motives for the creation of this regional grouping were to fight colonialism and communism and to prevent the escalation of regional conflicts accompanying the struggle to establish nation-states.

Efforts to create a set of values that member states were compelled to embrace and to mutually monitor compliance were avoided as being likely to exacerbate regional tension. This is the reason that ASEAN has not sought to intervene in conflicts involving member states. ASEAN has provided a framework for easing tensions between states and ethnic groups while many Southeast Asian countries were laying the foundations of nationhood.

It is precisely because of the principle of noninterference, paradoxically, that member states have been able to commit themselves to joint ASEAN goals.

Questioning ASEAN's effectiveness because it failed to take concerted action against human-rights abuses in Myanmar thus exposes an ignorance of ASEAN's historical context. The process of building sovereign nation-states following a period of colonization has finally gotten off the ground in many Asian countries.

Naturally, therefore, ASEAN requires principles that differ from those that have guided unification efforts in Europe, where sovereign states have existed for hundreds of years and have sought to build a single community so as to prevent debilitating wars against one another. Measuring ASEAN's effectiveness by European standards is thus misguided.

Criticism of human-rights abuses and the crackdown on democracy in Myanmar, moreover, by the very countries that had long trampled on human rights and democratic values in Asia — from the Opium Wars and the invasion of Indochina to the Vietnam War — seems somewhat out of place in the eyes of many Asian countries.

There may be people who feel that Western expressions of remorse for its colonization of Asia have been inadequate. Such people are unlikely to concur with Western commentaries that have denounced the lack of coordinated action against Myanmar.

ASEAN countries are now moving along the very difficult path toward economic development and political maturity as nation-states. As a regional consultative forum, ASEAN exists to support this endeavor and to minimize conflicts among sovereign member states. It is important that this role be understood in Asia's broader historical context.

The attempts to impose European values on ASEAN represent a disregard of ASEAN's history. ASEAN must be seen through Asian eyes, not through the filter of Western values.

Kazuo Ogoura is president of The Japan Foundation.

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