Potentially the most divisive issue to be addressed at the upcoming summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bali on October 7-8, 2003 concerns the membership of Burma. Traditionally ASEAN has been regarded as among the most successful regional institutions anywhere. Since its founding in 1967, ASEAN member states have never waged war against each other. Southeast Asia has become an enduringly peaceful security community. This achievement reflects ASEAN's commitment to the norm of national sovereignty, its refusal to violate that norm by interfering in a fellow member's domestic affairs, and its consensual style of diplomacy--the confrontation-shunning "ASEAN Way." But these facilitators of regional peace have at the same time reinforced the more or less authoritarian character of the Association's ten member regimes.
Nowhere in Southeast Asia is this anomaly of an "illiberal peace" more acute than in the crisis now facing ASEAN over the lack of democracy in Burma. Recently the junta in Rangoon arrested and imprisoned the leader of the Burmese opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi. The Burmese regime was able to crack down partly because of ASEAN's adherence to the principle of sovereignty and its reluctance to allow criticism of one member state by other member states. Will ASEAN's faith in sovereignty survive? Or will the Burmese dilemma force ASEAN's leaders at the Bali summit to rethink the very meaning of the Association in a globalizing and democratizing world?
Erik Kuhonta recently completed his dissertation on the politics of equitable development in Malaysia and Thailand. He specializes on the comparative and international politics of developing countries with a focus on Southeast Asia. A citizen of the Philippines, he was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Italy, and now considers Thailand his home. Kuhonta holds a B.A. magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. from Princeton University.