Archive for the ‘ASEAN’ Category

Reporting the ASEAN: Repression of ASEAN Media Continues

September 17, 2008

This is a slightly revised version of the author’s presentation in Jakarta, Indonesia on July 29 and August 26 during the training of journalists from member-countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) organized by the International Institute for Journalism (IIJ) of InWEnt-Germany.

Vol. VIII, No. 32, September 14-20, 2008

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) uses the term “nations” instead of “countries,” and for good reason. A country is defined as “the land in which one was born or to which one owes allegiance” (“The New Lexicon”, 1990, p. 223). Nation, on the other hand, refers to “a body of people recognized as an entity by virtue of their historical, linguistic or ethnic links” (“The New Lexicon”, 1990, p. 666)

It is therefore possible for a country to be composed of different nations. At the same time, it is plausible for a nation to have different countries. This explains, for example, the use of the term “Arab nation” to refer to different countries in the Middle East and beyond. The use of the word “nation” in its singular form, however, may not apply to the countries of Southeast Asia.

While its official website ( does not readily admit this fact, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) apparently uses the word “nations” to refer to the diversity of cultures among its member-countries. The latter may be “one” in terms of location and the consequent affiliation with ASEAN and other regional and global institutions, but the cultures are diverse, even within each other’s countries.

From an editorial point of view, the word “nations” is crucial to understanding the context in which there is a big difference not only in the different levels of development of their media organizations but also in the overall political and economic situation of each of the member-countries.

While the wide cultural diversity of ASEAN member-countries exists, journalists who write about the ASEAN should realize that the economic diversity is quite narrow – i.e., it confined only to the different levels of development (or “maldevelopment,” depending on one’s framework of analysis) in each of the member-countries.

Membership in the ASEAN requires the opening up of economies and the implementation of policies along globalist lines. Depending on how one analyzes globalization, the latter can have positive and negative effects on the people, particularly the poor.

The ASEAN currently has 10 member-countries. These are Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos (referred to by ASEAN as Lao PDR), Malaysia, Burma (referred to by ASEAN as Myanmar), Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam (referred to by ASEAN as Viet Nam).

One does not need to look far in assessing the situation of the ASEAN media. Several references can provide basic data on each of the 10 countries’ media situation. A high degree of cultural sensitivity (and perhaps some background in political science), however, should be observed in reading and understanding them.

According to The ASEAN Media Directory (1998) published by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAF), the ASEAN media scene ranges “from the very free in the Philippines and the almost totally free in Thailand (where government still controls broadcast media), to the pliant in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, to those strictly following party line as in communist Vietnam, Laos and military-ruled Myanmar.” (p. xii)

This publication may be very informative, but the use of the word “communist” to refer to some ASEAN member-countries is very inappropriate, if not totally irresponsible. Throughout the history of the world, there is no such thing as a “communist country” even if they may be “communist-led” by virtue of the power and influence of their respective communist parties.

The most that so-called communist countries like China have achieved is the economic stage of socialism. A review of concepts of political science would show that communism can only be achieved once the state has “withered away” and rendered itself obsolete. This is clearly not the case in Vietnam, Laos and Burma.

One may argue that the use of the words “communist” and “communist-led” is just a matter of semantics, but the use of appropriate terms can make a big difference in making the people understand the situation in countries called as such.

“Media freedom” is also not clearly defined in the study, and one can extrapolate that it is related to the existence of pertinent laws and the extent of private ownership of media. It is assumed that the provision of free speech and freedom of expression already makes the media free. In addition, the vibrancy of the press is based on the number of privately-owned media organizations operating in the country.

As early as now, it is necessary to stress that media freedom is more than the existence of laws or private ownership of media.

In this context, one needs to be critical of The ASEAN Media Directory’s description of the media situations in the 10 ASEAN member-countries.

· Brunei: “[L]iterally the Adobe of Peace, [it] has one privately-owned English newspaper, the 45-year old Borneo Bulletin; one Malay-language weekly newspaper, the three-year old Media Permata (Prime Media); a television channel, one satellite television and five radio stations operated by the government-run Radio Television Brunei; one lifestyle magazine in English, Regal, published every two months. One other English-language lifestyle quarterly Mutiara temporarily ceased publication in March 1998. While foreign advertising is allowed in Bruneian media, materials that run counter to Islamic culture and values are discouraged.” (p. 15)
· Burma: “Since 1963 when the military placed Burma under socialist military rule, all media – newspapers, television and radio – are nationalized and strictly controlled by the government under the Ministry of Information. The narrow range of media today in Burma, also known as Myanmar, reflects the political realities: analysis and discussion on current affairs are non-existent.” (p. 69)
· Cambodia: “Cambodian politics and the local tri-media cannot, with rare and sporadic exceptions, be separated. Almost all Khmer newspapers – there are 78 titles – have political affiliations. Even though ownership may be private, it is private in concept rather than [in] reality. The biggest newspapers in terms of circulation, income and influence are beholden to the ruling political party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).” (p. 23)
· Indonesia: “The last several years have been a robust span of time for the Indonesian media scene, until the regional currency crisis that began in September 1997.” (p. 33) “[T]he fact that there are still new titles coming out amid the crisis indicates that the media industry is poised for rebound once the economy recovers.” (p. 35)
· Laos: “The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) that governs Laos exhibits a built-in media contradiction since joining ASEAN. In an (sic) utopian, idealistic manner, it tries its level best to control media, pushing the cause and glory of the Revolution that imposed communism in 1975. On the other hand, membership in ASEAN means opening up national markets. Media is a market. `Bland’ is the word that usually comes to non-Lao minds when describing Lao media. `No life’ are words Laotians use themselves when describing Lao television (two stations), radio (one station) and print media (hardly a dozen newspapers and magazines). Almost all are government-controlled.” (p. 47)
· Malaysia: “Media in Malaysia operates essentially under government guidance. Despite the yearly launches of new radio stations and television channels in the past four years, the content remains placid and cautious. Media has grown in volume but its development has not been in quality, restrained as it is by a lot of pressure coming from political as well as religious bodies. This constraint did not prevent it from proliferating due to a booming economy…” (p. 53)
· Philippines: “The Philippine media enjoys a distinction of being the freest, most rambunctious and irreverent in Asia. With it goes the downside of being branded irresponsible. The Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy rated the Philippine press lowest in Asia for quality and reliability. Yet the Philippines is one of the few Asian countries where the media operates within a democratic framework which is unique in ASEAN. Media is a business and is a tool to maintain political and economic power of the owners.” (p. 79)
· Singapore: “Singapore has an extensive media industry disproportionate to its small three-million population and geographical size. Its location at a crosswords (sic) places the city-state at a vantage point to be the information hub of Southeast Asia. The ratio of newspaper circulation and reach to population is the level of a developed country. Media ownership of print and broadcast is largely in the hands of the Straits Times Group and the Singapore government. Media control through legislation and policing is among the toughest in the region. Even the dominant Straits Times newspaper is continuously surprised by the limits of information flow.” (p. 99)
· Thailand: “Thailand has more media choices than most of its Asian neighbors. There are over 40 TV channels (including cable and satellite options), about 500 radio stations, over 80 newspapers and 690 magazines in the country. Deregulation of Thailand’s media industry started in 1992 has enabled it to develop into one of the most exciting in Asia. However, since this growth has not been disciplined by any industry regulations, the market has developed in a highly fragmented and uncontrolled way, with no auditing of circulation figures and no lid on abuses.” (p. 117)
· Vietnam: “For a country where political control is central to the government’s philosophy, Vietnam has a surprisingly vibrant media. Newsstands in the commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City in the south and the capital of Hanoi display a bewildering selection of morning newspapers, competing for attention with glossy weeklies and monthlies covering a range of issues from the latest fashion trends for hip young urbanites to science and the legal system for intellectuals and business for the country’s aspiring entrepreneurs. The past decade of tentative economic reforms – known as `doi moi’ (renovation) – has seen dramatic growth in the number of publications. There are currently around 500, supporting a vast army of editors, reporters, photographers and production personnel. The impetus behind growth came from the reduction – and in some cases complete removal – of state subsidies, which forced newspapers to seek advertising dollars in order to survive.” (pp. 133-134)

While the description of the political and legal environments is appreciated, one needs to know the actual experiences of journalists in each of the 10 member-countries. With regard to the law, it must be kept in mind that what is stated is not necessarily what is implemented. Governments also tend to interpret laws based on how they can suit their interests, making such laws infringe on press freedom even if, in theory, they should not. The laws on libel and national security are examples of how a government can apply laws to suppress freedom, even to the extent of harassing, intimidating or even killing journalists.

The title of a study of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) in May 2008 on the state of the press in Southeast Asia may give one an idea of what is happening to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) media today: Slipping and Sliding.

On a positive note, the SEAPA reported that there have been “positive developments” in the past two years. (2008, p. 2), noting the following developments:

Indonesia most recently moved forward on its access to information legislation. Thailand made a peaceful transition from the policies of a coup-installed military regime to the realities of an elected government, and Malaysia has undergone a stunning electoral exercise that may allow for more checks and balances and meaningful opposition participation in government, and thereby more chances for political and media reform towards a more open society. Still, the most reliable conclusion for the region and the different countries that comprise Southeast Asia is that the fight to protect and promote press freedom in this part of the world is far from won. (“Slipping and Sliding”, 2008, p. 2)

The recent passage of “national security” laws was said to be a “familiar theme” in 2007 to all countries in Southeast Asia, from “Vietnam to the Philippines and Malaysia to Laos.” The SEAPA acknowledged that the Southeast Asian press will be uncertain in the years ahead, mainly because such laws have dire implications on free expression and press freedom. (2008, p. 2)

In the case of the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo enacted into law the Human Security Act (HSA) of 2007 (Republic Act No. 9372) on March 6, 2007. It took effect on July 15, 2007, about two months after the 2007 national and local elections. In a paper I wrote titled “The Human Security Act and Philippine Journalism” (February 2008) published by and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), I explained:

A person is said to commit a crime of terrorism if he or she engages in piracy in general and mutiny in the high seas or in the Philippine waters; rebellion or insurrection; coup d’etat, including acts committed by private persons; murder; kidnapping and serious illegal detention; and crimes involving destruction. With regard to crimes involving destruction, these refer to violations of Presidential Decree (PD) No. 1613 (The Law on Arson); RA 6969 (Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Waste Control Act of 1990); RA 5207 (Atomic Energy Regulatory and Liability Act of 1968); RA 6235 (Anti-Hijacking Law); PD 532 (Anti-Piracy and Anti-Highway Robbery Law of 1974); and PD 1866 (Degree Codifying the Laws on Illegal and Unlawful Possession, Manufacture, Dealing in, Acquisition or Disposition of Firearms, Ammunition or Explosives).The law’s Sec. 3 qualifies that, to be considered acts of terrorism, these crimes should sow and create “a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace, in order to coerce the government to give in to an unlawful demand.”


The opposition to the HSA mainly rests on the law’s broad definition of who is a terrorist. The so-called “condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic” among the people that may result from the identified crimes is so broad that anything and everything can be interpreted as such.

Comparing the findings of the KAF in 1998 and the SEAPA in 2008, there is clearly no qualitative change in the media situation. The SEAPA notes the following situations in ASEAN member-countries:

  • · Burma: “With the people of Burma repressed and suppressed more than ever, Burmese journalists say international pressure on the junta must not let up.” (p. 8)
  • · Cambodia: “Cambodia appears to have in place all the laws ensuring media freedom, but the reality is a different matter altogether. The constitutional provision for press freedom is ironically often invoked to restrict this very right, for it says, rather too broadly, that the exercise of this right must not infringe upon the rights of others, `affect good traditions of society’, and violate public law and order and national security. xxx Another restrictive constitutional provision that has been repeatedly invoked is Article 7, which states: `The King shall be inviolable’.” (p. 10)
  • · Indonesia: “The press in Indonesia…is backed by Constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression and press freedom, a progressive Press Law and Human Rights Law, and by the 2005 Ratification of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Law. (p. 18) xxx While the courts may need a compelling mechanism to apply the Press Law, Indonesia’s media community faces the continued challenge of defending the ground it is gaining against government offensives and extremist pressure out to undermine its independence and plurality.” (p. 22)
  • · Laos: “Although Article 44 [of the constitution] accords citizens the right to freedom of speech and the press, the role of the press is also outlined constitutionally as a link between the [Lao People Revolutionary Party (LPRP)], the state and the masses. Hence, all publications in Laos must be approved by the Ministry of Information, which issues them with publishing licenses, and newspaper editors and broadcast producers are appointed mostly from the party.” (p. 23)
  • · Malaysia: “Contributing to the lack of media freedom is the general political and civil rights environment in Malaysia, which has the mechanisms of a democracy but not the substance. Article 10 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech but also allows Parliament to impose restrictions for security reasons.” (p. 29)
  • · Philippines: “[T]he Philippine media remain vulnerable to laws and policies set by a hostile government, criminal defamation suits from powerful politicians, and contract-style attacks affecting provincial radio journalists in particular. The impunity that continues in attacks against Filipino journalists in 2007 was further complicated by the active promulgation of repressive laws and the restrictive interpretation of existing ones by the [administration] of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Laws on criminal libel, meanwhile, were abused by political figures, most prominently by the husband of President Arroyo.” (p. 32)
  • · Singapore: “Singapore continues to be unblinking and unapologetic in its restrictive rules and policies [with regard to press freedom and free expression]. xxx In the past two years Singapore has put in place stricter guidelines for the foreign media and served notice that it is keeping close watch on the Internet. xxx Intolerant of dissent or alternative views, the government has long monopolized and subjugated a once lively local press and continues to strategize, through new laws and regulations, to thwart any novel attempts to break its stranglehold on freedom of expression.” (p. 37)
  • · Thailand: “In a full year under military rule in 2007, free expression in Thailand was unstable as it hinged on the benevolence and patience of the military. xxx The new Constitution gives the same protections for free expression, and is in areas better at explicitly stating protection for editorial independence, banning prior censorship and barring direct and indirect political ownership of businesses related to media and telecommunication. It also suggests a self-regulatory or an independent body to protect media rights, which includes guarding against political and commercial interference in editorial matters. (pp. 41-42) [T]hreats to Thailand’s free press come not only from government, but also from powerful private interests that can abuse even civil defamation statutes.” (p. 45)
  • · Vietnam: “The country’s 1992 constitution recognizes the right to freedom of opinion, expression and association for all citizens. However, the Press Law puts all administrative aspects of the press, including editorial appointments, under government hands, and spells out the function of the press as protecting `party lines and policies’, as well as detecting and promoting `positive factors’. Hence, the government runs some 600 media outlets from the digital, broadcast and print sectors.” (p. 46)

The SEAPA study unfortunately did not include an assessment of the press in Brunei Darussalam, an ASEAN member-country. It did include, however, an assessment of East Timor’s.

In an article, Sonny Inbaraj, an editor of The Nation (Bangkok), wrote that the media are “not always independent, vigilant and defiant of authority as it should be – more so in Southeast Asia when state and business elites control the press and there exists legislation to jail journalists and editors if they `step out of line’. Conversely, in the West, media campaigns will not be mobilized where victimization, even though massive, sustained and dramatic, fails to meet the test of utility to elite interests – in other words, if the news runs against the interests of the state or economic elites.” (1996)

In any case, the media situation of the 10 ASEAN member-countries shows the uneven levels of development which, at first glance, makes it hard to make comparisons among them. The Philippines and Singapore, for example, are diametrically opposed when it comes to the media’s role in national development and the concepts of freedom of expression. There are governments that look at media as simply tools of the state and that they should only report on the “positive” and the “favorable,” an attitude that is not entirely different from the occasional demand of media consumers for the “good” news.

Regardless of the media diversity among ASEAN member-countries, a clinical study of the recent and past data shows that they actually have the following major points in common:

  1. There are threats to freedom of the press in all ASEAN member-countries, whether direct or indirect;
  2. New policies are being introduced by governments which may appear harmless to the practice of the journalism profession but, upon close scrutiny, can have negative repercussions on media;
  3. Existing laws are being interpreted and implemented to suit the interests of those in power, even at the expense of freedom of the press;
  4. Private ownership of media organizations should not be an indicator of a vibrant press because monopoly ownership of the media and business interests of owners must be taken into account, along with the extent of government’s control over them;
  5. An increased number of media organizations in a country is not necessarily good for the people because the quality of their content must be duly considered;
  6. The media are suppressed in the guise of protecting the State, but the officials do so mainly to perpetuate themselves in power and consequently protect their interests;
  7. Gains in upholding and protecting press freedom are products of the journalists’ and the entire people’s assertion of their rights.

The unequal development of the media among the 10 ASEAN member-countries may be rooted in their diverse historical contexts. It is understandable, for example, for the Philippines to have what SEAPA described as a “robust” media because it has a rich tradition of advocacy (even revolutionary) journalism dating back to the 19th century under Spanish occupation. Cambodia, on the other hand, finds it unacceptable for the media to report on anything negative about the King because doing so is perceived to compromise, among others, the culture in that particular country.

It is in this light that the journalists in ASEAN member-countries should do the following courses of action to promote professionalism in the practice of journalism and to protect freedom of the press:

  1. Learn, relearn and unlearn the basic concepts related to journalism and its role in social development and change, regardless of the respective country’s political and economic situation;
  2. Uphold and protect the highest professional and ethical standards of journalism, on the assumption that there are universal standards that can apply to any cultures of the world;
  3. Engage in information sharing and networking with other ASEAN journalists regarding the media and overall situation of each other’s countries;
  4. Encourage other ASEAN journalists and ASEAN-based media advocacy groups to help in demanding a government’s lifting of laws and other statutes that infringe on freedom of the press, as well as a stop to the harassment, intimidation and killing of ASEAN journalists by those who wield power and influence;
  5. Participate in the people’s assertion of basic rights on the grounds that freedom of the press is part of what they are fighting for in the first place;
  6. Continue to report about the situation in ASEAN member-countries and the ASEAN as an organization in particular, focusing on the latter’s actions and their implications on the people, particularly the poor.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can be newsworthy.

The reportage, however, must not only be limited to the ministerial meetings held annually. A simple comparison of its fundamental principles and the resulting policies and strategies show glaring contradictions.

The 10 member-countries have global importance because of their sheer size: As of 2007, they have a combined population of 575 million, a land area of 4.5 million square kilometers and total trade of $1.4 billion (i.e., 2006 data, computed as the sum of exports and imports).

The official website of the ASEAN also stressed:

The ASEAN region is a leading recipient of FDI [foreign direct investment] flows in the developing world, with five ASEAN countries in the top 20 developing-countries recipients of such long-term global capital flows from 1997 to 1998. Between 1993 and 1998, ASEAN received about 17.4% of the US$760 billion in cumulative global net FDI flows to developing countries. Over the same period, ASEAN received an annual average of US$22 billion in net FDI flows, compared with an annual average of US$7.8 billion in the period between 1986 and 1991. FDI flow in ASEAN increased on average by about 14% annually from 1996 to 1998, while FDI stock in ASEAN grew tenfold from US$23.8 billion in 1980 to US$233.8 billion in 1998. (“Asean Investment Area”, n.d.)

The ASEAN, established on August 8, 1967, is said to be a “child of the Cold War” and was born “amidst turmoil and conflict in the region.” It was reportedly founded on the countries’ “desire to promote economic growth and welfare of the people in the region. The original five countries [Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand] were then facing a common threat from communist insurgencies.” (Tan & Stehling, 1998, p. x)

Its six fundamental principles include the following: “[M]utual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity for all nations; xxx [and] non-interference in the internal affairs of one another.” (“Overview”, n.d., italics mine)

These two principles, just like the four others, may sound harmless and even noble, but these are subverted by some agreements recently forged by the ASEAN member-countries.

For example, the ASEAN Vision 2020, adopted during the ASEAN’s 30th anniversary, has a “shared vision of ASEAN as a concert of Southeast Asian nations, outward looking, living in peace, stability and prosperity, bonded together in partnership in dynamic development and in a community of caring societies.” (“Overview”, n.d., italics mine)

The principles of “mutual respect” and “non-interference” are clearly compromised by imposing, albeit indirectly, an economic direction that seeks globalist ends. Being “outward-looking” means that a country should constantly assess what is in demand in the global market and should consequently make the necessary adjustments in terms of its policies and programs. Even if the ASEAN does not explicitly state its bias for globalization instead of protecting domestic industries, an outward-looking economic orientation naturally results in a country’s being export-oriented and foreign investment-led.

ASEAN journalists could very well study the positive and negative implications of this implied bias for globalization, especially in the context of the social cost it brings to the poor people.

The ASEAN Investment Area (AIA), the framework agreement of which was signed on October 7, 1998 in Manila, seeks the “immediate opening up of all industries for investment, with some exceptions…to ASEAN investors by 2010 and to all investors by 2020.” The AIA also wants to promote “freer flows of capital, skilled labor, professional expertise and technology amongst the member-countries.” (“Asean Investment Area”, n.d., italics mine)

These objectives further quality what is meant by an outward-looking orientation among ASEAN member-countries. To encourage investors, the ASEAN enumerates the benefits they stand to get:

  1. “greater investment access to industries and economic sectors as a result of the opening up of industries under the AIA arrangements, if investors quality as ASEAN investors;
  2. “national treatment, if investors qualify as ASEAN investors;
  3. “greater transparency, information and awareness of investment opportunities in the region;
  4. “more liberal and competitive investment regimes; and
  5. “lower transaction costs for business operations across the region.” (“Asean Investment Area”, n.d., italics mine)

For those who want to write about the AIA, they should note that an ASEAN investor is “defined as being equal to a national investor in terms of the equity requirements of the member-country in which the investment is made. Thus, a foreign firm with a majority interest can avail itself of national treatment and investment market access privileges…” (“Asean Investment Area”, n.d.) This simply means that the rights and privileges of a local investor will also be given to a foreign counterpart, making competition more “even.”

The ASEAN reported that “ASEAN investors can now invest in manufacturing sector in any member-country subject to certain exclusions.” The same is now true for non-ASEAN investors if they came in between 1999 and the end of the year 2000. They also stand to enjoy special privileges like “income tax exemption, full foreign equity ownership, duty-free imports of capital goods, domestic market access, and at least 30-year long-term lease for industrial land.” (“Recent Developments”, 1999) As regards the latter, the Philippines enacted an Investors Lease Act in 1993 that provides for a 50-year lease of land for foreign investors, renewable for another 25 years.

One of the strategies of the AIA is to eliminate “investment barriers, liberalizing investment rules and policies and granting national treatment.” (“Asean Investment Area”, n.d.) As early as 1999, ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino said, “It is clear that ASEAN leaders have made regional economic integration a primary component of the region’s response to the economic troubles that have hit it.” (“Recent Developments”, 1999)

It is imperative for an ASEAN journalist to know that the diversity in the ASEAN is not just cultural but also economic in nature. In terms of export receipts, the 2006 data show that Singapore has the highest at $272 billion while Cambodia has the lowest at $3 billion. With regard to foreign direct investments inflow in 2006, Singapore has the highest at $24 billion while Burma has the lowest at $143 million.

The basic question that must be asked in analyzing the AIA is how national treatment can benefit developed ASEAN countries like Singapore and affect developing ASEAN countries like Cambodia and Burma.

An enterprising journalist can indeed explore several angles on the ASEAN, although it is hoped that the implications on the lives and livelihood of the people, particularly the poor, be given due attention.

A journalist’s role, regardless of nationality, is to provide relevant information in the shaping of public opinion. Media can help create an informed citizenry with regard to the ASEAN by constantly monitoring the latter’s actions and analyzing the implications of their policies and programs. Bulatlat

Works Cited for the Three-Part Series

Arao, D. A. (2008). The Human Security Act and Philippine journalism. Retrieved on July 9, 2008 from
Asean Investment Area: An update. (n.d.). Retrieved on July 9, 2008 from
Inbaraj, S. (1996). Free media in ASEAN: A reality or myth? Retrieved on July 9, 2008 from
Overview: Association of Southeast Asian Nations. (n.d.). Retrieved on July 9, 2008 from
Recent developments in Asean economic integration. (1999, September). Retrieved on July 9, 2008 from
Slipping and sliding: The state of the press in Southeast Asia. (2008, May). Bangkok: Southeast Asian Press Alliance.
Tan, A. & Stehling, T. B. (1998). The ASEAN media directory. Makati: Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
The new lexicon Webster’s dictionary of the English language. (1990). New York: Lexicon Publications, Inc.


Chief Justice seeks review of Asean consensus rule

May 30, 2008

MANILA — Chief Justice Reynato Puno criticized the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on Wednesday for its slow response to the Myanmar cyclone and surging rice prices, which could become a regional security threat.

He called for a review of the effectivity of the Asean rule of consensus to make it responsive to the changing social, economic and political situation among member nations.

Puno said the 10-member Asean’s policy of deciding by consensus has hobbled it in responding rapidly to crises, including the May 2-3 Cyclone Nargis that killed 78,000 people and left 56,000 missing in military-ruled Myanmar, according to government figures.

“The disaster has become an aid crisis that exposes the impotence of the Asean in assisting a member country knocked down on its knees,” Puno said.

In his keynote speech before delegates of the 8th Asean Inter-University Conference (IUC), Puno said there is a need to reexamine its “Rule on Consensus” in the light of the disasters, natural and man-mad alike, food crisis, and security threat to now sweeping not only the region but the entire world as well.

The event was a gathering of scholars from the social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities in the region and one of the biggest academic international conferences of this kind in the world. A total of 23 countries were represented in the conference and nearly 200 scientific papers have been submitted for consideration of the delegates.

Asean failed to rapidly act in the crucial first few days after the cyclone because of the lack of an effective regional mechanism to deal with such contingencies, Puno said.

Puno noted that Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan called for a “coalition of mercy,” but it took several more days before the bloc managed to agree on a way to help cyclone victims.

“While the body bags kept on piling in Myanmar, the coalition cannot immediately come to life given the Asean way of slow-motion intergovernmental consultation and consensus-taking process,” he said.

Asean only managed to organize an emergency meeting of its foreign ministers on May 19 — more than two weeks after Nargis struck — after getting Myanmar’s consent. The ministers agreed to set up a task force to handle distribution of foreign aid to more than two million cyclone victims and hold a donor conference with the United Nations.

Asean has long been hamstrung by a bedrock rule of noninterference in each other’s affairs and a policy of making decisions by consensus. It has particularly been criticized for failing to nudge member Myanmar to move toward democracy, release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and improve its dismal human rights record.

Asean has also failed to effectively deal with steep increases in the price of food, particularly rice — the region’s staple — despite the fact that half of its 10 member countries are key grain exporters, he said.

“The rice crisis has far-reaching repercussions to the stability of the region, for there is no greater threat to tranquility than the rumblings of empty stomachs,” Puno said.

Puno said the problems facing the Asean are “without nationality and which no country can solve by its might alone, so the need for cooperation is necessary.”

“It is now self-evident that an unbending insistence on the rule on consensus could hamper the international struggle against terrorism, transnational crimes, unlawful migration, environmental decay, etc.,” he said.

Puno said the Asean could not hope to deal with the superpowers, such as the European Union, the United States, Japan, and China unless the Asean regional integration is pushed “with greater passion and precision.” (ECV/AP/Sunnex)