Half a dozen countries have approved the new Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) charter, and two others are getting
closer to ratifying it. To its credit, only Indonesia stands in its
Legislators in one of the world's newest democracies are holding
out not for political or personal gain, but to fight for the rights
of THE PEOPLE OF one of their neighbors. Their most pressing
concern is also ASEAN's most embarrassing problem: Burma.
Sticking Up for Human Rights in
Last month, members of Indonesia's House Foreign Affairs,
Defense and Intelligence Committee sat down with Foreign Minister
Hassan Wirajuda to discuss the upcoming ASEAN Foreign Ministers
meetings in Singapore. Led by committee chairman Theo Sambuaga and
chair of the Burma caucus Djoko Susilo, the legislators had a firm
message: Without concrete progress on the Human Rights Commission
promised in the new ASEAN charter, the House (DPR) cannot proceed
with the charter's ratification.
The DPR is not insisting on democracy in Burma tomorrow. What
they want is a strong, independent human rights commission with not
only the power to monitor rights violations but the ability to
initiate and carry out investigations. The DPR wants an institution
equipped to ensure justice in Burma, and elsewhere, long term.
Perhaps the ASEAN heads of government didn't anticipate
Indonesia's reaction when they signed the new charter last
November. Ratification, naturally, went smoothly in Brunei,
Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Not surprisingly,
the region's strongest, if sometimes raucous,
democracies--Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia--have given
ratification a harder look. (Ironically, given what must be a far
from deliberative process, Burma has also not ratified.)
Prospects for Ratification Are
Thailand hosts this year's annual ASEAN summit December 15-18.
As the plan is to formally adopt the charter with appropriate
fanfare at the summit, December serves as the deadline for
ratification. Traditionally, the ASEAN chair cares most about the
success of the organization during its year at the helm. For this
reason, it's difficult to imagine Thailand not ratifying in
In the Philippines, President Arroyo has consistently tied the
fate of the charter to democratization in Burma and release of
activist Aung San Suu Kyi. At the same time, however, she has put
responsibility for ratification on the Senate. She has also created
an interagency task force to secure the charter's passage. And if
this isn't confusing enough, some in the Senate maintain that it
need only concur for the charter to have domestic impact;
the president herself can do everything necessary to meet the
Philippine commitments to ASEAN.
In short, there are enough moving parts in the Philippines that
ratification without progress on the Burma question is certainly
Final Hurdle to Ratification
This leaves Indonesia and its DPR. The DPR is the strongest
legislature in the region. Not only does it confirm ambassadors to
its diplomatic posts abroad, but its advice and consent is required
for foreign ambassadors posted to Indonesia. The DPR has rejected
two ambassadors from Burma. And having refused its consent
to send an Indonesian ambassador to Burma for well over a
year, the DPR is pointedly telling the Foreign Ministry that a
newly approved and installed ambassador is appropriate, but that
now is not the time to send him.
Essentially, the DPR is seeking to downgrade Indonesia's
relations with a fellow member of ASEAN over an issue of human
rights. It means business. ASEAN should take its threat to hold up
charter ratification very seriously.
Ratification of the charter and the human rights commission are
inextricably linked. The foreign ministers meeting in Singapore are
to begin the process of drawing up terms of reference for the
commission. The intention is to approve them in time for the
December adoption of the charter. For the countries that care the
most about human rights, the sequencing is critical. As soon as
they ratify the agreement, they lose all their leverage to shape
Heed the Legislature
Indonesia sits at the tipping point of the debate. One can only
hope that Minister Wirajuda heeds the warnings of his legislature.
Even if ASEAN rejects his proposal, he gains. He builds Indonesia's
capital and lives to fight another day. If, in the end, the charter
fails by a tally of nine to one, with Burma opposed because of its
discomfort with the human rights commission, that alone should
crystallize ASEAN's approach to its miscreant member. And if
Indonesia gets its way and all 10 members ratify, Minister Wirajuda
secures a historic achievement.
On balance, the ASEAN charter is a good thing. It will provide
greater coherence to an organization that has been far better at
aspiration than implementation. But the situation in Burma is more
than a pebble in its shoe. Without a way to address the problem
there, the organization stands in glaring contradiction to its
charter's stated intention to "promote and protect human rights and
In the long run, ASEAN will be indebted to Indonesia--and its
determined DPR--for forcing it to make the difficult decisions on
what has become a defining challenge.
Walter Lohman is Director
of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.