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              TOWARD A NEW ASEAN

      More openness can promote greater harmony and

IT BEGAN WITH THE ASEAN ministerial conference in Manila in July, when
backed by the Philippines, urged a change in the policy of non-interference
in domestic affairs. Then
came Lee Kuan Yew's candid memoirs, which made unflattering assertions
about Malaysia's
revered founding leaders. In September it was Jakarta and Manila's turn,
criticizing Kuala Lumpur's
treatment of ousted deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. After 31 years of
differences, verbal jousts among founding members of the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations
have observers asking, Is ASEAN falling apart? Some even fear a return to
the nationalist tensions
and military confrontations of decades past.

First the good news: sorry to disappoint arms merchants, but there won't be
any shooting war in
ASEAN for the foreseeable future. Whatever side they may take on
constructive intervention,
human rights and democracy, one thing the region's Crisis-hit countries
don't want is a
confidence-killing, recovery-stopping conflict. Moreover, one of ASEAN's
achievements is
precisely the diplomatic culture and mechanisms to manage and resolve
differences. The recent war
of words over Anwar is a soiree compared with the explosive conflicts that
the grouping has
weathered, including the Philippine claim to Malaysia's Sabah state, and
the Indochina wars, whose
Asian adversaries sit around the ASEAN table today.

Now, for possibly better news: publicly raising touchy issues, including
human rights and
democracy, could lay a stronger foundation for ASEAN harmony. Its hallowed
doctrine of
non-interference sometimes meant that intractable matters festered behind
the whitewash of
feel-good solidarity. Eventually they got out of hand - like Thailand's
financial excesses and
Indonesia's forest fires - and caused harm to and animosity among other
grouping members. By
airing rather than hiding differences, ASEAN could learn to manage and
resolve them while
preserving overall relations. "We will start arriving at solutions faster,"
Philippine Foreign Secretary
Domingo Siazon told Asiaweek.

It's about time. The onus on ASEAN to address concerns over rights and
democracy won't go
away. It needs to court Western help in the Crisis - not easy if some
members jail dissidents, stifle
media, break up rallies, and oppose or rig elections. Anwar's detention,
for instance, theatened to
derail the APEC summit in Kuala Lumpur Nov. 17-18, just when the forum
needs to act on the
Crisis. Moreover, voters and media in liberal countries like the
Philippines and Thailand will continue
pressing their governments to criticize repression elsewhere. In
tut-tutting over Anwar, the
Philippines' Joseph Estrada and Indonesia's B.J. Habibie were partly
playing to their home crowds.
Lastly, a willingness to openly speak on the issues of the day will help
the association retain its

Can ASEAN maintain good relations while being more open about differences?
Yes, if the recent
altercation is any indication. Despite the strong talk from Jakarta and
Manila, Kuala Lumpur kept its
cool and did not take steps to make its critics sorry they opened their
mouths. Estrada and Habibie,
for their part, wisely avoided going too far with their carping, the former
listening to prudent advice
from his predecessor, Fidel Ramos. Initial clumsiness in speaking out was
to be expected; such
candor, after all, is new to ASEAN.

Practice will hopefully make for a better sense of how far to push one
nation's views on another
before the exercise becomes unproductive and even dangerous. Focusing on
policies rather than
personalities would also help make intervention more constructive. Estrada
and Habibie spoke up
mainly because of their ties to Anwar. It would be good in future to
address such hot-button issues
as detention without trial, press freedom, free and honest elections, IMF
programs and foreign debt
relief. Then the intervention would be less partisan, and its impact extend
beyond one man's case.

The other imperative for the new openness is for ASEAN to act as the
grouping that it is, expressing
a collective position, not just individual nations mouthing disparate, if
frank, views. A single voice,
forged by majority vote or consensus, would be much harder to ignore than
the comments of
specific governments. To be sure, agreement on such delicate issues as
human rights will be
extremely difficult. But try the association must, if only to harness the
major issues of the day as a
force for ASEAN unity, not fractiousness. One agreement to aim for is a
code of citizens' rights and
duties with different implementation deadlines for various members,
depending on their level of
political, legal and economic development. Having devised a
country-specific schedule for
liberalizing trade, it's time the grouping did the same for politics.

Adopting constructive intervention need not lead ASEAN to dump its
traditional tack of raising
concerns in private, which remains appropriate in certain circumstances.
And let no one think the
path of open debate is without perils. Two are most pernicious: members
might still let nationalist
pride drive them to conflict, and outside powers could exploit frictions
within the grouping. Plainly,
ASEAN solidarity will be tested - and hopefully strengthened - more than ever.