Indonesia will next year take over the ASEAN chairmanship from Vietnam in a shift that is expected to raise the forum’s credentials on human rights and protection of migrant workers.
The 42-year-old regional grouping has fallen short of addressing human rights issues in recent years with Thailand chairing ASEAN in 2009 and Vietnam the current chair.
As chairs, Thailand has been rocked by anti-government protests that have put on hold many of the groups agendas, while Vietnam, a one-party state, has been reluctant in making high-level contact with civil groups in the region.
During the 16th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi last April, Vietnam refused to succeed a meeting between leaders and civil groups, which was first started in 2009.
Yuyun Wahyuningrum, a human rights activist and a consultant for Oxfam, said ASEAN’s agenda was driven by its chairman whenever the 10 members failed to reach a consensus.
“When ASEAN is chaired by a member with weak human rights records, we cannot expect to see much progress on the agenda brought forward by other members,” she said.
“As such, the sustainability of ASEAN’s agenda is actually put into question and Jakarta might need to push ahead with the rights agenda that has been lagging behind.”
Indonesia, scheduled to chair ASEAN in 2013, has asked to swap with Brunei for next year’s chairmanship because it is also slated to host the APEC summit in 2013.
Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said besides the scheduling conflict, Jakarta has decided to move forward its chairmanship period because it sought to “fill the vacuum of leadership in ASEAN”.
Ade Padmo Sarwono, the Foreign Ministry’s director for ASEAN political and security affairs, said Tuesday Jakarta has been working on outlining its agenda, with the Myanmar elections likely to be included.
“We are still working on next year’s agenda. Rights issues, including the protection of migrant workers will be a part of it,” he said, adding Jakarta would host the meeting between leaders and civil groups when it chairs ASEAN in 2011.
Jakarta, together with Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines, have been pushing for ASEAN to adopt legal protection for migrant workers despite reluctancy from Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
“Jakarta would push forward with agenda so that all member states adopt the legal protection instrument, which could cover both documented and undocumented migrants,” said Edi Yusuf, the Foreign Ministry’s director for economic cooperation for ASEAN.
“Some members have not yet agreed on the provision to protect undocumented migrants, but we see it as crucial because the number of those documented and undocumented are similar,” he said.
Yuyun said Indonesian leadership would also be put to the test when member state Myanmar wrapped up its first election in two decades late this year.
Although the election has been denounced as a sham by the international community and Myanmar’s main opposition party, ASEAN members have withheld tough criticisms of the reclusive nation.
“There is an expectation that when Indonesia assumes the chairmanship next year, it will place strong emphasis on post-election Myanmar and push forward with calls that the country embraces democracy and human rights as it has pledged,” said Yuyun.
A senior diplomat said Indonesia should play a strong leadership role next year, but warned of risks of being too progressive. The diplomat pointed to the recent move by Singapore to launch its own initiative of ASEAN+8, challenging Jakarta’s idea of expanding the East Asia Summit (EAS). Both forums plan to include the US and Russia to convene with 16 EAS members.
“Singapore has always consulted with us whenever it comes to ASEAN agenda because we share similar views on how ASEAN should progress. But the recent ASEAN+8 versus the expansion of the EAS showed that Singapore and Indonesia are no longer in the same boat. There is a fear that Indonesia is too progressive and is failing to meet the interests of other members.”