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ASEAN Fails to Bite on Myanmar Reforms

If the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, better known as ASEAN, was a garden party, then Myanmar was the dark cloud that threatened to break. Some could say that it did in fact rain on ASEAN's parade.

The Myanmar issue usurped the economic and trade agenda. It also deflated the air of optimism and confidence that characterized the upbeat mood in the run-up to the signing of the landmark charter that made it a legal, rules-based entity.

The Philippines broke ranks with ASEAN calling for the immediate relase of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo warned that the Philippine congress may not ratify the charter if Myanmar doesn’t commit to democracy. Bear in mind, ASEAN's charter must be ratified by all ten members states within 12 months.

But leaders did managed to shift the focus of the summit later on in the week towards trade. One of the big economic themes was the growing significance of the ASEAN bloc. Supporting this was the evident jockeying of positions amongst China, Japan, India and South Korea to get free-trade deals signed with ASEAN.

The clear winner -- Japan. ASEAN and Japan endorsed a free trade deal at the summit, eliminating tariffs on most goods except sensitive items like rice and beef. However, disagreements between India and ASEAN on tariffs placed on agricultural goods and petroleum appeared to have setback progress on a trade pact between the two parties. Still, Indian trade minister Kamal Nath was confident a deal could be finalized by 2008.

Apart from trade, climate change issues also made it to the forefront. An agreement was signed which included top polluters China and India. This is seen as significant and observers said the deal could be used as a basis for United Nations climate change talks next month in Bali. Critics though called the pact vague saying it contains no binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Still it doesn't matter how much progress was made in dealing with environmental issues, or how many free trade pacts were signed, or that ASEAN is finally a legal entity. What will mark this summit in memory is how ASEAN dealt with Myanmar.

If ASEAN is a family, as Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong, is so fond of referring to the group as, then Myanmar is arguably the black sheep.

By reading the riot act to Myanmar, ASEAN could have shown to the world that it had teeth. That didn’t happen. The non-interference principle that’s been at the core of ASEAN's value system, over-ruled any hard line stance against the military regime.

And if we continue along the family analogy line, one could say that ASEAN spared the rod and spoiled the child. Its parenting skills leave a lot to be desired.

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