Ten golden stalks of paddy rice, woven together so tightly in abundant friendship and solidarity that it seemed as if those who set their eyes on it would never go hungry for want of company. Indeed, in its 50 years of life, ASEAN has done well for itself. From a mere five members (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand on 8 August 1967) to ten (Brunei in 1984 and Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia in the 90s), the regional organization has successfully expanded far beyond its initial aims despite the few commonalities amongst the people of the region. Diverse as they were, their leaders were united in that they were all wise enough to sow and reap the benefits of regional cooperation.

As such, ASEAN is no longer characterized as a mere creature of the Cold War; much like the European Union, it has developed into a regional powerhouse, fueling its citizens with hope for the future. ASEAN has facilitated the transformation of contemporary Southeast Asia from the blood-stained fields of war and conflict to a thriving, humming region of peace and stability. This is clearly marked by the dwindling disappearance of mass atrocities as well as ASEAN’s proactive steps to maintain unity. ASEAN has also seen a yield of massive economic growth: it is the seventh largest economy in the world with a total combined GDP of more than USD 2.3 trillion and this is projected to increase by more than fourfold to USD 10 trillion by 2030. This means that very soon, ASEAN will become the fourth-largest economy on the world stage. Furthermore, ASEAN has managed to ensure and maintain regional and global cooperation through its platforms like the East Asian Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum. It has also engaged with 10 major powers as ASEAN Dialogue Partners, namely Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, and the United States of America.

In terms of economic policy, ASEAN has done remarkably well. However, in relation to civil and political policies especially issues concerning democratic processes, good governance, human rights and inequality, ASEAN currently lags behind other regional groups. Despite the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 which reassures its people that they can enjoy ‘human rights and fundamental freedoms’ along with opportunities in the form of a huge market of USD 2.6 trillion and over 622 million people, there is still much that has to be done before ASEAN can fully harvest its crops.

Widespread human rights abuses are not new in the Southeast Asian region, nor are they similar across ASEAN Member States. There are the more prominent ones such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs and the discrimination against the Rohingya Muslim population in Myanmar. Then there are the less obvious civil and political rights abuses such as the systemic suppression of dissent by the Singaporean and Malaysian governments. There is also cause for concern regarding the implementation of the death penalty in Indonesia, the 2012 disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone and the 2014 military coup in Thailand. Clearly, the human rights situation is far from perfect: the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development depicts it as ‘a trend of shrinking civil society space’ despite ‘ASEAN’s aim to be a people-centred and people-oriented community’.

Most lamentably, all of this has produced minimal response from ASEAN. Instead, ASEAN has time and time again refused to engage substantively with civil society organizations to recognize and protect human rights abuses brought upon by various parties. In the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos, it was then United States President Barack Obama who acted as a vehicle of voice: he called for ‘an open, dynamic and economically competitive Asia-Pacific that respects human rights and upholds the law-based order.’ As embarrassing and disappointing as it is, one can only infer that ASEAN’s deafening silence implies a lack of true commitment to the progressive mandate of the ASEAN Charter.

An oft-cited reason for this is ASEAN’s principle of non-interference in its Member States’ internal affairs, more commonly known as the ‘ASEAN Way’. Authority for the ASEAN Way can be found in the ASEAN Charter which stipulates it as respect for ‘the principles of sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, non-interference, consensus and unity in diversity’. Article 2(2) of the Charter reaffirms this in that it reiterates the importance of Member States’ independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity. Therefore, it can be concluded that human rights are not perceived as an international issue but rather one at a national level, with due regard given to the different cultures, histories, and socioeconomic conditions in each ASEAN Member State.

Consequently, the repeated practice of ASEAN Way results in little being done at an international platform. Instead, sensitive issues usually relating to political power, for example, refugee protection, are perceived to be better dealt with at the bilateral level. That is not to say that nothing is being done at all; this occasions in cherry-picking where some forms of human rights protection are perceived to be more acceptable than others. For example, all 10 Member States have ratified the United Nations Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Rights of the Child, and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Yet, a majority of ASEAN countries have not signed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and the 1954 Statelessness Convention. As commendable as the ASEAN Way is, it is unlikely that such a clear division between civil and political affairs and economic affairs can subsist any longer. The practice of the ASEAN Way must be relaxed, especially after the commencement of the AEC otherwise its absoluteness will hinder instead of help progress.

However, all is not lost. There are two ongoing developments that may better the current situation. The first is the existence of the overarching human rights institution, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). Officially inaugurated in 2009, the AICHR drafted the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in mid-2012 which was unanimously adopted by ASEAN members in the same year. The Declaration details ASEAN nations’ commitment to human rights for its 622 million people. Despite this, it has been described as a toothless tiger as its limited mandate does not include receiving and investigating human rights complaints. Undeniably, AICHR needs to adapt to the changing context and structural challenges of rights protection: it would be best if its mandate was wider allowing it to denounce alleged human right violations taking place in the region and also if its body more multi-sectoral than the current composition. Nonetheless, the existence of AICHR itself marks a huge step towards the right direction as it has the ability to set the correct tone for human rights cooperation with the relevant ASEAN organizations. Likewise, ASEAN bodies and government representatives are slowly adopting and using human rights language instead of shying away from it on the basis that human rights are a taboo issue. In the near future, AICHR has the potential to become the main mechanism for upholding human rights given the politics and dynamics of the region.

Second is the possible and it must be said, eventual entry of Timor-Leste into ASEAN. Timor-Leste is a comparatively young country which was separated from Indonesia in 1999 after the intervention of the United Nations; it only achieved proper sovereignty and independence in 2002. Since then, it has pursued ASEAN membership and its labor may prove fruitful as its prospects of success are said to be good as they stand. Unlike its Southeast Asian counterparts, Timor-Leste has a record of transparent elections and a high human development index; its government sets precedent for other countries in the region in that they commit to engaging with civil society and correspondingly, there lives an active civil society that promotes human rights domestically and internationally. It is also a member of multiple regional human rights bodies such as the National Human Rights Institutions Forum and the Asia Pacific Forum. Given this, if Timor-Leste’s admission is realized, it could potentially provide economic prosperity for the region and also champion human rights values in the organization. However, one must be wary of the limitations in this respect. Timor-Leste’s outspoken democracy may backfire in that it might make itself a political outcast. Additionally, considering the way ASEAN treats human rights issues, Timor-Leste’s voice may not have such a big impact as hoped. Nonetheless, Timor-Leste’s credentials may be just what it takes to jolt ASEAN into moving forward and aligning its words with actions.

Now more than ever, ASEAN has a crucial role to play. In order to ensure that ASEAN is firmly anchored in the hearts and minds of the 622 million citizens of ASEAN, fundamental liberties must not only be promoted but actively protected. ASEAN’s future is blazing bright, but only insofar as its people believe in it. Ultimately, it remains to be seen how ASEAN will toil the soil with respect to the AICHR and Timor-Leste’s admission, given Manila’s chairmanship in 2017 and Singapore’s in 2018.


Jinghann currently reads Law in the University of Warwick. She keeps one foot in the legal world as KPUM’s Fellowship Director and another in the creative arts scene as a Performance Steward in the Warwick Arts Center and as the co-scriptwriter of Warwick Malaysian Night 2017 (and then again, the two worlds are not as polarized as they seem to be: the practice of the law can be a theatrical performance of sorts). Jinghann aspires to write and read well and is extremely keen on conversation with meaning, so drop her an email at hjinghann@gmail.com if you are too!

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.