Friday, June 18, 2010
Asean Must Use Thai Crisis To Rethink Noninterference
The recent crisis in Thailand affected not only the country’s domestic politics but also shook the regional stability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. During the Bangkok standoff last month, Indonesia called for Asean to push Thailand to settle the conflict peacefully, while Vietnam and Cambodia recommended establishing a summit to coordinate a resolution.
The moves show that Asean’s state sovereignty boundary and noninterference policy should not be seen as walls to addressing human rights issues. Member countries had little choice but to respond to the Thai crisis.
According to Rotary International Peace and Conflict Studies, the crisis has impacted the region in three ways.
First, economically. Decreased tourism and foreign investment, not to mention damaged infrastructure, affect Asean’s broader economy, especially important now that we have an open market with China.
Second, the crisis has disrupted the Thai-US partnership, especially with regard to military aid. And third, the crisis directly affected Asean activities, forcing a summit in Thailand to be canceled.
Asean’s policy of noninterference has been a double-edged sword ever since the association’s founding.
It strives to ensure harmonious relations among member countries, but it has also been a stumbling block on occasion for greater and more constructive cooperation.
Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra abused this policy in the past, using it as an excuse to table human rights issues and internal conflict.
At the Asean summit in Laos in 2004, he even threatened to walk out if the subject of the Thai insurgency was broached.
We cannot deny that Asean has made marvelous achievements so far on its road to the Asean Community 2015, such as the ratification of the Asean Charter, the publishing of the Asean Community 2015 Blueprint and the creation of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.
However, simply realizing regional institutions does not constitute comprehensive functional bodies.
The AICHR, for example, was finally established last year but was set up poorly.
The body was formed of 10 government representatives, one from each member state, with its key purpose to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms across the region.
However, in executing its mandate, the AICHR’s authority has been limited in that it operates only within the guidelines of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The AICHR has been chided by activists for its poor record of protecting victims, such as ethnic minorities in Burma, journalists in the Philippines and even the family members of communists killed in Indonesia from 1965 to 1966.
Officials at the AICHR recognize that too many compromises are needed in order to reach a consensus between member countries. Not surprisingly, the noninterference policy is often brought out as an excuse.
There is too much at stake if Asean fails to meet its 2015 vision.
The promise of economic integration, with a larger market that can create more opportunities for economic expansion and hopefully a more stable region, will vanish if member countries are not willing to compromise.
It would be both an economic and political loss if an individual country’s ego or traditionalist principles were to leave collective action by the wayside in tackling the contemporary economic, political and sociocultural issues affecting the region.
Today, threats do not only come from other states, but also from transnational issues such as health and the environment. Even within the state system itself, there may occur a threat that demands a multinational, collective approach.
A strong and collective political will of member countries is needed to overcome collective problems.
The Thailand crisis can provide us with momentum to prove Asean’s commitment in strengthening its regional ties and redefining the policy of noninterference.
In the future, the policy should be seen as a principle to respect member countries’ decisions, but one that must be in line with the shared values of democracy and respect for human rights.
It should not be used as a shield to cover up human rights violations by governments.
Asean should take the initiative to defend human rights and democracy across the region.
It’s more contextual and nuanced approach to regional issues might work better than the aggressive moves of other international institutions to help ameliorate Thailand’s human rights issues.
The recent trend of Asean member countries stepping in with advice for Thailand suggests that they have started to move away from their comfort zone of keeping silent.
This is the first step. Now someone needs to blow the whistle loud. Asean needs to get there soon before more lives are sacrificed.
Natalia Rialucky Tampubolon secretary general of the Indonesia Model United Nations 2010.