Everything changes, but some things stay the same. We in ASEAN face this paradox. Over several years, the premier regional grouping in Southeast Asia has evolved, in many respects for the better.
Officials may quote proudly the list of declarations which have become a framework for various cooperative arrangements, but, perhaps, the most valuable of changes has not emerged from any lengthy negotiation or political compromise.
The most gradual, yet profound, change has been the evolution of (some) member states’ attitudes in promulgating a more values-based approach to the conduct of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The change has been sluggish, even lethargic at times. But, undeniably, change there is.
At all levels of engagement — track-one, two and three diplomacy — a higher degree of honesty is prevalent in the exchange of views.
Blunt opinions expressed with the best intentions, without malice or spite.
The socio-political upheavals in Indonesia have been a catalyst for the changes. So too the preponderance of democracy as the global premier ideology, albeit not necessarily in Southeast Asia.
These changes have come during an important era in ASEAN’s often unexceptional history. As the regional grouping marks its 40th anniversary this year, we are pleased to have reached a juncture at which fellow Southeast Asians must no longer gloss over our malfeasance or be blind to our faux pas.
It is about time ASEAN grew up. And although the level of oneness varies, we can say that a core body of members seems to be increasingly onboard.
But what happens when a member-state openly rejects these values?
Myanmar’s continued refusal to allow even the smallest hint of political openness and its blatant subversion of the political process is one of these cases.
Yangon’s decision Friday to extend the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, despite the strongest calls to do otherwise from Indonesian and Philippine officials, shows its complete disregard for the growing values of ASEAN.
The Indonesian Foreign Ministry was right when it said Monday that Myanmar’s decision had hurt the good image of ASEAN.
Other ASEAN states have been too patient, given too many opportunities and been embarrassed enough by the military regime.
Being a member of ASEAN not only signifies geographical proximity but also a general sense of shared values and mutual respect. On the latter part, Myanmar is certainly flaunting a caustic attitude.
Dismemberment from ASEAN is too drastic a measure, but some form of ostracism is called for given Myanmar’s continued preference to place itself as a liability and an embarrassment to ASEAN.
But Indonesia should also not complain, since it is reaping the consequences of its own past failures in maintaining a kid-glove approach to Yangon.
Perhaps next time our diplomats will think twice about refusing to support a UN Security Council resolution on Myanmar, as they did earlier this year.