WHEN the foreign ministers of the original Asean member countries established the grouping in 1967, they probably did not guess that the regional organisation would receive some of its most ardent criticism from its very own citizens.
"We were not born yet," laughed Augusto Miclat Jr, the Philippine activist who in 1994 organised the controversial Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor (APCET) in Manila, where Nobel laureate and East Timor resistance spokesman Jose Ramos-Horta and other internationally- recognised figures spoke about East Timor.
"People in the streets of Manila and Davao know more about East Timor than Asean," Miclat said.
Indonesian President Suharto reportedly ordered his aides to lodge protests against Philippine President Fidel Ramos, saying that the meeting was intended to corner Indonesia and should be prevented.
In a bid to put real pressure on Manila to thwart the activists, Indonesia even cancelled a plan to arrange a meeting between businessmen from the countries and threatened to stop the ongoing peace process in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao by pulling out of the Jakarta- brokered Moro dispute settlement.
Ramos, who initially said he could do nothing about the privately- sponsored seminar, finally bowed to the pressure and barred foreign participants from entering the Philippines. Officials from both countries cited "Asean solidarity and the principle of non-interference" to defend their actions.
"They used every trick in the book to cancel the conference," Miclat said on Wednesday, adding that such pressure was an example of how Asean had developed into "a political grouping [banded together] in response to criticism on human rights".
Indonesia invaded the tiny former Portuguese colony in 1975. Critics say Indonesian rule has led to the deaths of almost one third of East Timor's population of 750,000 due to ceaseless fighting, starvation and disease.
The United Nations does not recognise the Indonesian claim despite the unwavering support given to Jakarta by fellow Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and newly accepted members Burma and Laos.
"Asean has failed to deliver on the aims and principles of the  Bangkok Declaration - the promotion of justice, freedom, peace and social progress. They have directly and indirectly suppressed people in East Timor, Burma and Cambodia," Malaysian Debbie Stothard of the Bangkok- based Alternative Asean Network on Burma said.
Stothard said a disturbing gap had emerged between Asean's original mission declaration and what it actually does. "The non-interference policy has overridden the principal issues."
According to Stothard, Asean governments ignored the civil rights movements of their respective countries as they attempted to create a regional economic boom that unfortunately has only advanced certain sections of the population.
"The strength of a region lies in its people. Large areas in Asean do not even have drinkable water, adequate education or social welfare," she said. Her words echoed Asean's declaration at the 1976 signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia that people were much more important than economic success.
The treaty clearly stated that Asean would strive to achieve social justice, the development of low-income and rural populations, as well as peace, harmony and stability in the region. The treaty also stated that a concerted effort would be made to stamp out drug production and trafficking.
Stothard said the admission of Burma could be interpreted as a breach of this last part of the treaty. The military regime of Burma, notorious for heroin, has been accused by several international organisations and independent groups of protecting the business activities of Golden Triangle opium warlords.
"By accepting Burma, Suharto strengthened his grip on East Timor," Miclat said, explaining that Suharto needed allies like the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) to face the growing criticism of Indonesia on human rights issues.
Miclat and Stothard are not the only ones attacking Asean. Non- governmental organisations throughout Asean countries - such as Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Aliran (Penang), the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (Jakarta), Pijar Indonesia (Jakarta), the Philippines Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (Manila), Initiatives for International Dialogue (Davao), Forum Asia (Bangkok), Forum of the Poor (Bangkok) and the Singapore Democratic Party - are expressing their displeasure with the way their governments are running the show.
Most activists label Asean as an elitist club which does not involve the public in its activities. Harsher critics say Asean does nothing but maintain the status quo and protect authoritarian rulers like Suharto, former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad.
"In rural areas no one knows the name Asean. Even NGO members don't know much about Asean," Koul Panha, of the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, said.
Observers say activists' numbers have grown mainly because better educated generations have emerged with the growing economies of Southeast Asia. These urban and often western-educated activists want their governments to listen to their opinions not only on local politics but also on foreign affairs.
"Let's build our own Asean," Indonesian poet, journalist and dissident Goenawan Mohamad said half-jokingly at a seminar in Jakarta on the admittance of Burma into Asean last month.
On the plus side, activists in cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Jakarta believe that Asean's stubbornness on East Timor, Burma and Cambodia has helped prod dissidents into uniting.
Miclat jokingly dubbed Asean the "Association of Suharto's Exclusively Aligned Nations", saying that Suharto had obviously bullied Ramos and later did the same thing to then Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim over a similar seminar Miclat held in Kuala Lumpur in 1996.
Miclat was deported from Kuala Lumpur and some of his Malaysian colleagues were jailed by police overnight. Miclat, who apparently does not have the word "quit" in his vocabulary, said the next meeting would take place in Bangkok in February of next year. Who will be the next politician to be bullied by Suharto, he wonders, and when will the people of East Timor cease being victims of Asean "solidarity"?
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