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Analyst Worries Democracy May Be Sidelined for Asean ‘Security’

Chinese and ASEAN leaders attend the 15th ASEAN-China Summit in Phnom Penh's Peace Palace, Cambodia, November 19, 2012. (VOA Khmer/Sophat Soeung)

Chinese and ASEAN leaders attend the 15th ASEAN-China Summit in Phnom Penh's Peace Palace, Cambodia, November 19, 2012. (VOA Khmer/Sophat Soeung)

WASHINGTON DC - The adoption of the Asean Human Rights Declaration in Phnom Penh last year marked a major milestone for advocates of Asean democracy. But a prominent Southeast Asian security expert says that while democracy is important for security in Southeast Asia, getting the region’s democracy agenda back on track remains uncertain in the near term.

The recent opening up of Burma, also known as Myanmar, has made some observers see promise of greater democracy in Southeast Asia. But some worry that despite this attention, traditional security issues, like the South China Sea, might sideline the region’s democratization agenda in coming years.

Rizal Sukma, executive director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia, told an audience at the East West Center in Washington last week that the current global geopolitical climate is starting to affect how Southeast Asian countries prioritize their foreign policies.

Countries in the region are having to choose between their core values and their practical interests, he said. “My fear is that most of us will choose interest, rather than values,” he said. “And then we can say goodbye to democracy as the agenda of regional cooperation in Southeast Asia.”

Human rights and democracy were founding principles of Asean, a group that puts together democracies, constitutional monarchies and communist governments. But Indonesia, the bloc’s largest member, has been pushing for greater democratic reform since 2003.

Burma’s reforms in the democratization process have stirred some signs of optimism, but Sukma said democracy should be viewed as important regionally, as well. And that will require changes in a lot of countries.

“In a democracy, you have to open up and cannot withhold information anymore,” he said. “So it provides a lot of opportunities to actually understand each other better.”

But democracy is a tough agenda item for Asean countries, who typically have non-interference policies. It took years to adopt a Human Rights Declaration, one that rights groups have criticized as below international standards.

Katherine Southwick, an international law consultant based in Southeast Asia, told VOA Khmer via Skype that the Asean declaration is an evolving document, and while revision of some provisions will be helpful, its value will ultimately depend on implementation.

That will depend on citizens and governments, “and what kinds of measures they actually take when they are confronted with human rights abuses,” she said.

Sukma told VOA Khmer that the declaration allows governments to argue “cultural relativism” to trump universal rights norms. The declaration was a disappointment to Indonesia, the only Southeast Asian country listed as “free” by the US-based watchdog Freedom House, he said.

And though officially Indonesia welcomed the declaration at its signing in Phnom Penh last November, the country is walking a fine line between promoting a regional democratic agenda and alienating countries that might see its work as patronizing, he said.

Burma was the first Asean country to reach out directly to Indonesia for help in its democratization process, he said. Burma will now chair Asean in 2014, symbolizing the region’s struggle to put democracy as a pillar of regional security. But other issues are pressing, as well.

That kind of tension was brought to light at the November summit in Phnom Penh last year. The summit was dominated by policy arguments of the South China Sea, where Asean members have overlapping claims with China. Discussion on the rights declaration was overshadowed by that contentious issue.

Still, Sukma said Burma’s chairmanship will put democratization higher on the agenda, as the country seeks to trumpet this achievement.