[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo joins other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the grouping’s partners after the signing of a declaration on the passage of an ASEAN constitution at the 11th ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia yesterday.]

KUALA LUMPUR (VIA PLDT), December 13, 2005 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - Southeast Asia’s regional grouping approved yesterday the drafting of a constitution aimed at boosting democracy, human rights and good governance in the region and speeding up democratic reforms in Myanmar.

Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathered in the Malaysian capital for their annual summit and signed a document pledging to draft an ASEAN charter to serve as its "legal and institutional framework."

The agreement would promote "democracy, human rights and obligations, transparency and good governance and (strengthen) democratic institutions," according to a joint declaration to be signed by ASEAN leaders.

The document calls for setting up a panel of "eminent" citizens to make recommendations for the charter. Former President Fidel Ramos is the Philippine representative to this panel.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo said the ASEAN charter was crucial to the future of the region "as we move towards greater and wider community-building beyond ASEAN, and as issues become more complex and interrelations more complicated."

"It is time to open the door to creating the binding norms that will define and govern our collective actions," he said in a statement.

Romulo said such a charter would provide ASEAN with "legal personality, create a mechanism for settling differences, and a legal basis to enforce our agreements."

Many hope that an emphasis on democracy and human rights in the document will bring about change in Myanmar, which has been under military rule since 1962.

The current junta, which came to power in 1988, has promised to move toward democracy but has been widely criticized for doing little to fulfill its pledge. It also has defied the international community by keeping pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest since May 2003.

The junta’s behavior has frustrated its colleagues in ASEAN, which itself is facing criticism from the United States and Europe for not pushing the generals hard enough.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said last week that ASEAN’s reputation has suffered because it is perceived as not doing enough to pressure Myanmar to democratize.

"I think they are working hard on that score. We hope that Myanmar will be able to achieve this in order for us to assist them," Syed Hamid added.

ASEAN is long overdue in adopting rules defining principles of human rights, good governance and the rule of law, said Zaid Ibrahim, chairman of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Caucus on Democracy in Myanmar.

The charter could help hold Myanmar’s junta accountable to basic rights standards, he said. If Myanmar agrees to the document’s principal points in its role as ASEAN member, then "the regime must also show proof that they subscribe to them," he said.

Myanmar was discussed informally during a dinner on the eve of the summit among ASEAN leaders, including Myanmar’s Prime Minister Soe Win.

Thaung Tun, a top adviser to Soe Win, said his government was asked to accept a visit by an ASEAN delegation, but he indicated that Myanmar would welcome ASEAN delegates only one by one and not as a group.

Syed Hamid said ASEAN’s leaders have ruled out expelling Myanmar from the association.

"If we isolate (Myanmar)... what will it do to its people?" he said.

A statement released by Syed Hamid said he welcomes "the invitation by Myanmar" for him to visit the country "to learn firsthand of the progress" made by its leaders towards democracy.

"We also called for the release of those placed under detention," he added. "The (ASEAN) leaders were very clear... there must be some moves... not just words."

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

ASEAN’s annual leaders’ retreat was to be followed by meetings with other regional powers, culminating in Wednesday’s inaugural East Asia Summit, which joins the 10-nation bloc with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Russia will attend as an observer.

The final meeting will deal with still-vague plans for setting up a regional economic community accounting for half the world’s population and a combined economy of $8.3 trillion.

But the conflict between heavyweights China and Japan is just one example of the vast hurdles in those efforts.

China has called off a planned meeting in Kuala Lumpur with leaders of Japan and South Korea in anger over Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to a Tokyo war shrine that honors Japan’s 2.5 million war dead, including those executed for war crimes.

China and South Korea, both occupied by Japanese forces before 1945, say Japan has not fully atoned for wartime atrocities.

"China isn’t responsible for problems in China-Japan relations, nor are the Japanese people," Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said in Kuala Lumpur, adding that the tensions are due to "a certain leader of Japan who repeatedly worships World War II war criminals. This is unacceptable."

Koizumi played down the tensions as "temporary" and said they would not undermine the regional influence of Japan, the world’s second-largest economy, Japan’s Kyodo News agency reported.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien-Loong said in a speech Sunday that although ASEAN is bringing down trade barriers and unifying markets among its 10 economies, things must move quicker for the grouping to be a player alongside China and India.

"Combined, these two economic powerhouses will shift the center of gravity of the world economy toward Asia," Lee said. "In order to stay in the game, ASEAN must therefore take decisive action." — With reports from AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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