HUA HIN, Thailand -- Leaders from 16 Southeast Asian countries signed a groundbreaking agreement on human rights issues at this year's annual gathering of The Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
ASEAN leaders signed agreements this past weekend to strengthen relations and better the lives of their people.
Human Rights Commission 'Toothless'
A major milestone of the summit was the creation of an ASEAN human rights commission.
But several human rights activists walked out of the summit on the first day, calling the body toothless. They believe a tougher stand should be taken against member state Burma, also known as Myanmar.
The Burmese regime is one of the worst violators of human rights in the world. It continues to detain more than 2,000 political prisoners including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who is still held under house arrest.
ASEAN members believe engagement rather than tougher sanctions is the best approach to affect change in Burma.
Political analyst Valeriano Avila says it is better to bring Burma in and not to further isolate them.
"Now they feel they belong to ASEAN and tell them slowly, you do not do this to your people," Avila said. "It will come up with certain rules ASEAN should obey, that's the time you can really crack down and even go to the extreme. We can vote you out of ASEAN.
The global economic downturn has drawn Southeast Asia into a closer relationship with South Korea, Japan, and China. China alone has pledged to contribute $25 billion in investments and commercial credits to the region.
"As a group we become strong," said Thailand Secretary General Isra Sunthornvut. "There are free trade agreements by bilateral countries but the establishment of the road or a path of economic integration of ASEAN is most important than anything else.
Engaging Its Potential
The United States will meet with alliance members November 15.
"I think they recognize the potential of ASEAN. The economic resilience and the fact that we manage to weather this economic crisis. I think U.S. wants to engage ASEAN more than it has in the past and that is why we are having this summit," said Enrique Manalo, Philippine Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs Policy.
Climate change, food security, and reducing trade barriers were among other issues discussed.
Members also expressed their desire to form a European style economic alliance within the next six years.
People vs. Power
The 15th ASEAN summit has concluded, but the bigger task of its member nations has just begun and that is to ensure the realization of commitments that have been made towards a more progressive and people-centered Southeast Asian region.
Still, much work needs to be done. Member states still face border disputes, economic and political differences, and human rights violations.
Avila says these difficult issues may be overcome only when the region's leaders learn to love their people more than power.