Unless Myanmar restores democracy and frees Aung San Suu Kyi, opposition leader, it is unlikely to ratify a landmark Southeast Asian charter, the Philippines warned.
The unexpected ultimatum by Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was a clear sign that Myanmar will continue to hamper progress by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Association, which touts the charter as a testament to its growing integration.
"The expectation of the Philippines is that if Myanmar signs the charter, it is committed to returning to the path of democracy and releasing Aung San Suu Kyi," Arroyo told her Myanmar counterpart, Lt. Gen. Thein Sein, during a one-on-one meeting in Singapore.
"Until the Philippine Congress sees that happen, it would have extreme difficulty in ratifying the .. charter," Arroyo said at the meeting, held before an ASEAN summit Tuesday.
She repeated the comments at a dinner of ASEAN leaders, who are set to sign the charter during the summit. For the charter to take effect, it must still be ratified by parliaments of member countries, a process that was likely to take a year.
The charter will fail if one country fails to ratify it.
"The belief of the Filipino people and the Philippine Congress, as well as my own, that those who will sign the charter agree to the objective, spirit and intent of establishing a human rights body - the full protection of human rights within ASEAN," Arroyo said.
The long-overdue ASEAN Charter is aimed at formally turning the 40-year-old organization - often derided as a powerless talk shop - into a rules-based legal entity. That means ASEAN can sue and be sued under the charter, and will be held accountable for all the treaties and agreements it signs. It will also set up enforceable financial, trade and environmental rules.
One of the most significant pledges in the charter is to set up a regional human rights body. Critics note that it will have limited impact, given that it will not be able to punish governments that violate human rights of their citizens.
Negotiators have watered it down by dropping earlier recommendations to consider sanctions, including possible expulsion, in cases of serious breaches of the covenant by member nations.
A copy of the charter seen by the AP states any such breaches would be referred to ASEAN heads of state "for decision."
"I'm not sure if it will have teeth but it will certainly have a tongue," Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said, referring to the agency's right to admonish and criticize violators. "It will certainly have moral influence if nothing else. But these are details for the future."
An obvious candidate for discussion under the human rights body would be Myanmar, whose military-ruled junta used troops and police to crush peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators in late September, killing at least 15 people.
The junta's actions have greatly embarrassed ASEAN, which is under pressure from the West and its own people to force change in the isolated Southeast Asian nation also known as Burma.
A glimmer of hope for democracy in Myanmar has been raised by the recent efforts of U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who met with junta leader Sen. Gen. Than Shwe and Nobel laureate Suu Kyi after the September crackdown.
The junta has indicated it will restart the process of national reconciliation.
Myanmar expressed satisfaction with the charter.
"We have a very good charter. I think everybody should be happy. It's quite balanced," senior Myanmar diplomat U Aung Bwa said in an interview.
He added that he didn't believe Myanmar's internal problems should be the subject of intense scrutiny at the summit.
ASEAN was founded during the Cold War years as an anti-communist coalition, eventually evolving into a trade and political bloc. It consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The ASEAN leaders will meet with leaders of China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand for a second summit on Wednesday. This session will be given a briefing by Gambari on Myanmar.
Nine international students from a local university staged a small protest against Myanmar's junta near the summit venue.
Dressed in red T-shirts that read, "We pursue peace, justice and democracy for Burma," the students each carried a candle as they walked down a main street in groups of three.
"I've been reading about the situation in Burma, the crackdown and violence, the repression of civil society and the monks," said Pia Muzaffar, 22, a British student. "With the news that the Burmese generals would be in Singapore, I really felt that I should try and do something because I want to send the message that the world hasn't forgotten Burma."
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