July 22, 2008
SINGAPORE: Burma yesterday ratified a proposed ASEAN charter that includes controversial human rights provisions a day after regional powers slammed the nation's ruling junta for extending opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's detention.
Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win delivered Burma's instrument of ratification yesterday during an annual meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of South-East Asian Nations, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said.
But question marks remain about whether Burma's junta, which has jailed hundreds of political dissidents, including Nobel peace laureate Ms Suu Kyi, is willing to adhere to the principles of human rights and respect for rule of law enshrined in the charter.
It was also unclear whether the proposed ASEAN human rights body, the details of which have yet to be hammered out, will have any substantive enforcement or monitoring power.
The charter, expected to come into force by next year, aims to strengthen the 10-member group of Asian nations, giving it power to sue and be sued, and establishing enforceable financial, trade and environmental rules.
The most controversial part of the charter is a proposed human rights body.
"It's high time that we concretise the human rights of the people of ASEAN," said Rosario Manalo, the Philippine representative to the panel.
Still, it is clear the body will not have the power to sanction countries that violate the rights of its citizens.
The Philippines and possibly Thailand will push for ASEAN to have the power to at least monitor human rights violations, one southeast Asian diplomat said.
Burma is the seventh member of ASEAN to ratify the charter. The Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia have baulked at endorsing it, demanding that Burma first give firmer commitments to democracy.
The human rights panel, which held its first meeting last night to determine the scope of the human rights body, is expected to submit a draft of its recommendations to an ASEAN leaders' summit in December.
Ignoring international criticism, Burma's junta on May 27 extended Ms Suu Kyi's detention by another year, drawing an extraordinary rebuke yesterday from ASEAN members, who usually shy from criticising each other.
Burmese officials have issued no public response to that criticism, although Mr Nyan Win suggested yesterday Ms Suu Kyi could be freed from house arrest in about six months. Ms Suu Kyi has now been detained for more than 12 of the past 18 years at her home in Burma.
In an address yesterday to ASEAN foreign ministers, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said ASEAN had only implemented 30 per cent of its agreements. The charter, he said, would help improve that "somewhat patchy" record as a bulwark against crises, such as the 1997 Asian financial storm.
"If another test comes, ASEAN must not be found wanting again," Mr Lee said.