The annual ASEAN summit opened on Tuesday in the shadow of the Myanmar issue with the 10 Southeast Asian member countries expected to ink a landmark Charter to transform the loosely bonded club into a rules-based legal entity with deeper economic integration.
Opening the plenary on Tuesday morning, Singapore premier Lee Hsein Loong said the ASEAN leaders will strive to prevent the Myanmar issue "from obstructing efforts to deepen integration and build an ASEAN Community" after the grouping abruptly withdrew an invitation to UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari to address the summit following Yangaon's objection.
Lee stressed that to stay relevant and to respond to the new strategic environment, ASEAN must transform itself into a more effective grouping.
"We need a more coherent institutional framework to organise our growing scope of activities. We also need a different way of thinking about ASEAN. While national interests remain paramount, they must be increasingly balanced with regional and international interests," he said
The Charter, facing criticism that it was silent on punitive measures against members for non-compliance, has to be ratified by all the 10 member countries to become a reality.
Once it is implemented, it will include financial, trade and environmental rules. ASEAN could sue and be sued under the charter, and will be held accountable for all the treaties and agreements it signs.
Scepticism over the charter, which will give the grouping a legal status after 40 years in existence, arose as the group's principles of non-noninterference in each other's internal affairs and decision making by consensus could prevail.
"Today we will be adopting the Blueprint for the ASEAN Economic Community, which sets out specific timelines and targets for economic integration measures that will make ASEAN more competitive as a region," Lee said.
"Security and Socio-Cultural blueprints are similarly being developed. These efforts will ensure a balanced ASEAN, progressing evenly on all three fronts," he said.
The ASEAN cancelled Gambari's scheduled address for the East Asia Summit late Monday night. The East Asia Summit includes the Asean 10, and leaders from India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. The Summit caved in to Myanmar's demand after its Prime Minister Thein Sein insisted during a dinner meeting that the
envoy should only report to the United Nations.
However, ASEAN leaders urged Myanmar's junta to open a 'meaningful dialogue' with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, release her from house arrest, free all political detainees and work toward a "peaceful transition to democracy."
The Asean Charter, prepared after nearly three years of haggling among member nations, envisages setting up of a regional human rights body. Critics note that the charter may be ineffective against countries like Myanmar, whose military junta has been condemned globally for its crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in late September that claimed at least 15 lives.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said on Monday that many people misunderstood the non-intereference principle.
"It is also in the UN Charter. It is not something that is alien, the principles are there but they are being interpreted and reinterpreted to suit the times."