I see this as a great opportunity to express the admiration and support of the people of Malaysia for the great on-going struggle and sacrifices of the people of Burma for freedom, democracy and justice.
The recent admission of the State Law and Order Restoraton Council (SLORC) into ASEAN is a great setback for the cause of freedom and democracy in South-East Asia.
Much as we disliked it and worked to block it, Burma’s admission into ASEAN has become a fait accompli. There is no reason for anyone, however, to despair at this development but on the contrary, fighters for freedom in Burma and outside should consider how they could more effectively espouse the cause of Burmese freedom, democracy and justice in the new ASEAN context.
Some ASEAN leaders have been talking about a new policy vis-a-vis Burma following the expansion of ASEAN-9, on the ground that ASEAN’s "constructive engagement" policy was for a Burma before it became a member of ASEAN, and now with her admission, a new comprehensive policy would have to be put in place.
However, there had been no explanation of what this new ASEAN policy on Burma to replace the much-discredited ASEAN "constructive engagement" policy would be about or what it would be called. Probably, the advocates of freedom and democracy for Burma should flesh out such a new ASEAN policy on Burma to ensure that it includes the important components of democratisation and national reconciliation. May be, if ASEAN is look for a new policy on Burma, it should be called "constructive intervention".
In this context, it is a matter of grave concern that immediately after the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kuala Lumpur last month, calls were made for the review of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, questioning the universality of human rights and democratic freedoms.
It raises the question whether the admission of Burma into ASEAN would be used as a pretext to justify a new lowest-common denominator of "acceptable democratic norms" in international relations - the SLORC standards - and that SLORC has become the latest exponent of the "Asian Values" school of democracy and human rights.
Any proposal to review the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to justify the false choices expounded by the advocates of "Asian Values" between prosperity and freedom, development and democracy, stability and respect of human rights must be contested by Asians and South-East Asians themselves, so that it would not be seen as a battle between the East and the West.
Asian and ASEAN voices for democracy and human rights must make themsevles heard - to ensure that calls for respect and promotion of democracy and human rights are not regarded as Western imports but as the universal aspirations of humanity.
ASEAN is 30 years today and there can be many criteria to assess the development of ASEAN in the light of the Bangkok Declaration to promote justice, freedom, peace and social progress in the region.
Economically, despite Thailand’s current financial crisis, ASEAN had made great strides in the past three decades, although grave problems of poverty and social inequity persists in large areas of the region.
But it is in the area of human rights and civil liberties that ASEAN has lagged most behind.
Earlier speakers have spoken about the need for ASEAN to develop a people’s dimension as at present ASEAN merely reflects the official stands of the various governments concerned, which do not represent the deep-seated aspirations of the people for freedom and justice.
This is particularly the case with regard to human rights and civil liberties and the time has come for the people in the various ASEAN nations to put pressure on their respective governments to adopt an ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights with a ASEAN Human Rights Commission to monitor human rights abuses.
For today’s purpose, let me refer to two recent items to illustrate the areas which I think should be the concern of the people of ASEAN.
Firstly, about social equity. The latest issue of FORBES magazine listed the billionaire heads of states and among the first five topping the list are two from ASEAN. The wealthiest is the Sultan of Brunei, assessed as worth US$38 billion while President Suharto is listed as the third richest head of state, assessed as worth US$16 billion.
Secondly, about integrity in politics and public service. The 1997 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI) does not have a flattering ranking for ASEAN countries apart from Singapore, which is listed as the ninth least-corrupt nation.
Malaysia dropped from No. 23 placing in 1995 to No. 26 in 1996 and is now in No. 32. Thailand fell from No. 34 placing in 1995 to No. 37 in 1996, and is now No. 39. Philippines fell from No. 36 in 1995 to No. 44 in 1996 and is now No. 40. Indonesia fell from No. 41 in 1995 to No. 45 in 1996 and now occupies the No. 46th place.
The rankings by FORBES and Transparency International illustrate the grave problems of social inequity and integrity in political life and public service, and highlights the urgent need to build and strengthen civil society institutions in the ASEAN region to protect the interests and aspirations of the common people of ASEAN, apart from those of the rulers and the governments.
In this connection, as part of the effort to strengthen civil society institutions in the region, I would suggest the formation of an ASEAN Coalition Against Corruption (ACAC) to protect the people’s interests in the whole region against the evils of corruption.
The current Thai financial crisis has an important corruption dimension as pointed out by influential Thai newspaper editorials and corruption should be a matter of grave concern to the people in the majority of ASEAN nations.
The next decade or next 30 years should see a new vision in the evolution of ASEAN - the emergence of a strong ASEAN civil society where ASEAN is represented internationally not only by the official views of the governments in the region, but even more important, a separate and distinct ASEAN viewpoint representing the aspirations and dreams of the ordinary people in ASEAN for freedom and justice.
This forum would have been useful if it could make a contribution towards the crystallisation and emergence of a People’s ASEAN in the next decade and more.