ASEAN's ''Black Swans''

It was meant to be a celebration not a showdown, let alone a showdown that the brutal junta in Burma (Myanmar) would win. In August 2007, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) turned forty. On November 20, to mark the occasion, the heads of government of the association's ten member states-Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam-met in Singapore for the thirteenth ASEAN Summit. A day later the heads of government from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea joined them for the third East Asia Summit (EAS).

The summitry had three purposes. The first was to commemorate ASEAN's first forty years. From only five members at its inception in 1967, the association had by 1999 grown to encompass all of Southeast Asia's formerly quarrelsome states. For the first time in the region's history, a single indigenous organization could claim to stand for all of Southeast Asia-albeit only by overlooking just how variously accountable ASEAN's diverse regimes were to the peoples whom they presumed to represent.

But ASEAN was not content to rest on these laurels. The second reason for the summitry in Singapore was to prepare the organization for the future. The ASEAN summit's peak event was to be the unveilingand signing of a first-ever charter for the organization.

Finally, the packed schedule in Singapore was meant to project the best possible image of ASEAN to the assembled foreign guests and the wider world. By inaugurating a charter meant to enhance the association’s effectiveness, the organizers of the celebrations hoped to belie Western criticism that ASEAN was little more than a “talking shop.” They also hoped that showcasing the charter would distract attention from the presence in Singapore of ASEAN’s most widely castigated member, Burma, and thereby gain some relief from Western charges of guilt by association with that pariah state.

It was not to be. The summit was convened and the charter was signed. Plans to implement the ASEAN Economic Community were announced. But the Burmese junta stole the spotlight from these accomplishments in a way that tainted the anniversary, embarrassed the association in front of its foreign guests, and reminded analysts just how tenuously regionalism is related to democracy in Southeast Asia.