As ASEAN sits on the cusp of a historic change rooted in the celebration of its fortieth anniversary in August, it was slightly all-too-predictable that I would attempt to proffer my analysis of where it's going.
To be blunt: ASEAN is going places! And if its places you're asking me to be specific on, let me be just that. ASEAN is writing a charter, kind of like a constitution, that will
"set a standard of behaviour in inter-state relations, but also in how they govern internally."
As other regional integration agreements become more conscious of practising a rules-based regionalism, it was not going to be surprising that an organisation like ASEAN that is reputed to work on the basis of consensus, would want something that would be more regimented and structured.
MC Abad, the big boss at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) unit in ASEAN's Secretariat based in Jakarta, told AFP:
"It will prescribe the way forward with the consent of all ASEAN members upon adoption"
To be a bit more specific about what ASEAN is seeking to do with the Charter, it's important to bear in mind that around the discussions of a rules-based ASEAN, predicated on human rights, was going to be an implicit way of talking to some of the errant members of the forty-year-old organisation. Specifically: Myanmar:
Egoy Bans, a spokesman for the regional advocacy group Free Burma Coalition - Philippines, welcomed the rights commission, calling it a small step forward for ASEAN, which in the past repeatedly sidestepped the issue of rights abuses.
"Hopefully, once we have this rights organ under the charter, ASEAN countries can begin engaging Myanmar on the issue of human rights," Bans told AFP.
"It's all about political will. When they (ASEAN members) engage the junta, they should do so by pushing for complete reforms because the constructive engagement policy has failed," he said
Whether the policy of constructive engagement has failed or not is moot; what matters, now, is that ASEAN is movng on. As to whether they will continue to enjoy (not quite sure whether that's the right word!) the observer status of blocs like the EU and the superpower of the US in their discussions is another matter altogether. It matters, in my view, because I see an ASEAN that can go its own way without a European Union sitting in on its discussions or the US.
What is so exciting for me about this development is that ASEAN, when this succeeds, will have succeeded where the EU failed in 2005, when the Netherlands and France said "no" to a European constitution. The flip side is that ASEAN citizens might not be as aware as their European counterparts are on any potential loss of sovereignty that might be accrued, as it were, from an ASEAN Charter.
Either way, when passed, the bar will have been set for other regionalisms to follow. I'm rather convinced that the eight-member SAARC, being the closest regional integration agreement to ASEAN, might be following developments quite closely. If not, it better!