Grouping must take this opportunity to set democracy as the norm across a region heading for integration
When members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said recently they “understand” the political developments in Thailand, they were using a diplomatic phrase that was not meant to convey acceptance of any justification for the military coup.
Myanmar, as current chair of Asean, said it fully understood developments here. Vietnam followed the same line, saying its relations with Thailand would continue as usual.
However, this “understanding” should not mean that Asean now ceases to pay attention to the political situation in Thailand. Instead, it must monitor developments closely.
Two days after the Thai military seized power, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Asean must adopt an approach to the situation that was in the best interests of both Thailand and the regional trading bloc.
“It is true that this is an internal affair of Thailand, but Asean is a caring-and-sharing community,” Yudhoyono said.
The Indonesian president is set to leave office in a couple of months and his party has no candidate in polls to select his successor, but that doesn’t mean Asean shouldn’t listen to him.
There are two good reasons to heed the advice. First, since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, Indonesia has been Asean’s largest democracy by population and the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy. Indonesia has seen many elections since then, and presidents of all varieties – male, female, civilian, a retired military general, a religious leader, good and bad. Its political system has weaknesses, but its people have kept the faith and enabled it to develop. The election of governments there now reflects the will of the people rather than that of a tiny elite.
Secondly, as Yudhyono pointed out, the new Asean Charter dictates that members must respect democratic values and rights.
An objective in Article 1 of the charter is to strengthen democracy, good government and rule of law, and to promote and protect rights and fundamental freedoms. All members are obliged to strengthen democracy ahead of the their integration as a common market by the end of 2015.
The term “democracy, good governance, rule of law and rights” might be interpreted differently in different countries, but Asean members should be on common ground on the definition of democracy as respecting the “will and rights of the people”. Any form of governance that goes against the people’s will and rights should not be considered democratic. Hence, any attempt within its member countries to seize the reins of power and defy the will of the people should be met by Asean’s collective disapproval.
It is important to note that, shortly before the coup, Thailand had volunteered to take a leading role in pushing key tasks to promote democracy and rights across the region. Asean must take this opportunity to set democracy and democratic values as norms in the region, using Thailand as the test case. Otherwise, its charter should be amended.