Money for rights at the ASEAN summit

Joseph Allchin

Oct 22, 2009 (DVB), In recent days civil society groups have convened in Thailand to thrash out their own version of the official regional summit, starting tomorrow, and plain to see was the frustration at the gulf between the two.

Yesterday, the exiled Burmese activist Khin Ohmar was chosen by civil society groups to attend the 15th ASEAN summit as representative of Burmese Civil Society Organisations (CSO). Yet, according to Khin Ohmar, domestic Burmese organisations riled against her exiled status as being not representative of Burma.

"There were a number of [Burmese] junta-backed agencies who were present at the ASEAN Peoples' Forum, and they wanted to have somebody that they can influence," she told DVB. This 'somebody' would be from a local group inside Burma "who is not able to have an independent voice to speak on the key problems that the Burmese people are facing."

Whilst several of the more 'modern' ASEAN leaders play lip-service to Western discourse on human rights, it seems to have about as much currency as oil companies who talk about the environment: it's a co-option of a 'nice idea'. This 'nice idea' was recently honoured with a fresh ASEAN human rights monitor who would be answerable too, amongst other notable human rights abusers, the Burmese junta. It will have no punitive powers but would instead 'promote' human rights. "It's a human rights commission for the government; it's already so weak in so many ways," Ohmar said.

What will no doubt be more on the minds of every well-funded leader, the military ones included, will be the future of trade both within ASEAN and between other international blocs and nations. In the pipeline is the intriguing potential of a free trade agreement (FTA) with China, India and the European Union, whilst human rights will likely form a pretty part of the packaging.

The diversity of ASEAN will mean that trade agreements will mean different things to different nations; Burma will be affected in a very different manner to somewhere like Malaysia or Thailand, for instance. Many in India are concerned that the industrial might of nations like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia will have a negative impact on India's own industrial development, with those economies being able to out-do their Indian rivals.

This alone could have an effect on Burma, whose cheap labour and absence of industry regulations on the surface provide a tantalizing prospect for multinationals. It's an issue that Burma economics expert Sean Turnell has termed a 'race to the bottom' with standards. In a turbulent future economy, without the debt-led spending of Western nations, Asian nations may have to compete for bargain basement industry. Labour and environmental standards could be the first casualty in such a race. Indian economist Asseem Srinavastava had suggested that a venture into Burma earlier this year by Tata motors of India provided an example of this, with the probability that it was done to bypass strict laws in India. In similar fashion it could induce other ASEAN nations to cut standards.

Burma is already believed to have some of the cheapest extraction costs for gas and oil, and is a Mecca for other controversial extractive industries like rare animal parts, traded openly in Burmese markets and logging. As Jon Buckrell from Global Witness told DVB yesterday, illegal logging has drastically eaten away at Burma's forests, with a ton of Burmese teak now being sold for as little as $US300.

However, according to Turnell, "political instability tends to trump these sorts of concerns [over industry competition]", with companies now "desperate not to locate in Burma"; the lack of infrastructure, rule of law, a credible banking system and trustworthy exchange rate are destroying Burma's chances.

Burma has been a sort of bit part on the side of the more dynamic economies of ASEAN. Whilst its resources are eagerly tapped by companies in Singapore and elsewhere, its governance and development has remained more in league with tiger despots than tiger economies. A way round Burma's domestic quagmire has been to bring its cheap labour to Thailand or Malaysia, which has now created special economic zones to accommodate the influx of industry. Yet Ohmar speaks of "major concern" over agreements which "have not consulted the people or civil society and do not have people integrated into the processes [of formulating trade regulations]".

At the ASEAN people's forum this week, Joy Chavez, an economics and agricultural expert from the Philippines, warned that the current crop of FTA agreements are "exclusionary, they do not link with the people of ASEAN [and] without people's input there is a big danger". Turnell further expressed angst about binding trade agreements with powerful blocs like the EU: "For me the worry would be the extent that the EU and other countries could lever away to express their unhappiness about human rights issues" if they signed an FTA.

The ASEAN policy of 'non-interference' is also key: like most bilateral agreements and bodies, all parties will seek to get the most out of it, whilst giving the least. So whilst ASEAN intends to become an EU-style free trade zone by 2020, the member states "will be desperate to protect their own industry", according to Turnell, with 'non-interference' used to prevent other nations from upholding regulations. It's the great legal expression of conservatism at the heart of the region, and will keep the economic powerhouses from spreading the potential wealth that exists in the region.

The cohesion of the group, whether horizontally, between national governments, or vertically, between its leaders and their subjects, is a major cause for concern. Essentially ASEAN will never achieve its targets of being a free trade bloc or of having progressive human dignity for all if leaders are not prepared to have the humility to submit to principles, rules and standards that that require interference or accountability. Its efficacy will be at the mercy of 'big men' who, for Khin Ohmar, have failed to show commitment. "Now we always make a joke; with ASEAN its one step forward, two steps backward. It's like the same old story again".

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