Dark side of family life puts strain on Asean

The coup in Cambodia and a run on member states' currencies expose organisation's weaknesses
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The leaders of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) are fond of referring to themselves as a family and, superficially at least, there is something to be said for this arch analogy. The seven members - ranging from stately Father Indonesia to more skittish siblings like the Philippines, and eccentric left-wing aunties like Vietnam - get together once a year for a big summer party, at which compliments are exchanged and family matters are given a thorough airing.

This week's meeting in Kuala Lumpur will be the 30th such gathering, a celebratory occasion at which three long lost children were finally to be welcomed into the fold. But quite unexpectedly, as preparations for the big party were just gathering pace, the family went through a run of terrible fortune. In the last few weeks, one brother has nearly gone broke, several others have lost their own money trying to bail him out, and one of the prodigal sons has gone berserk.

Even as recently as a month ago, this week's meetings were being portrayed as a symbolic and diplomatic landmark, when Asean would move a step nearer to its destiny as the closest thing Asia has to the European Union. The group was to complete its membership by welcoming Burma, Cambodia and Laos, after three decades of remarkable growth and increasing co-operation.

Asian diplomats speak of the "Asean way", based on behind-the-scenes consensus building and public harmony. Today, as ministers gather for the first in a week long round of meetings, the economic stability, the harmony and the confidence are in tatters, shot to pieces in the Cambodian coup and the assault on south-east Asian currencies being carried out by international speculators.

Discussion is certain to be dominated by the Cambodian crisis, which has seriously undermined one of Asean's most fundamental principles. Asean's governments range from a high-spirited, if unpredictable, democracy like Thailand to the authoritarian quasi-dictatorship of Indonesia. But they have always insisted that stability is their political aim, and that no state is in a position to criticise the internal political arrangements of another.

This point was forcefully made a year ago when Asean confirmed that it would be admitting Burma as a member. The announcement caused consternation in Western capitals, where Burma's junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) is considered beyond the pale. But Asean stuck by its guns, insisting that only through "constructive engagement" with Rangoon could Slorc be shown the error of its ways.

That argument has become strained in the last few weeks, as Hun Sen's forces have trampled all over the Paris peace accord, partly brokered by Asean, which temporarily brought peace to Cambodia. Phnom Penh's membership has been put on hold, spoiling the symbolic unification of the region on its 30th birthday, but Asean's attempts to mediate a settlement between the warring parties have been scornfully rejected by Hun Sen.

Some Asean leaders are already arguing for a redefinition of the group's principles to allow for "constructive interventions". But if Asean is prepared to roll up its sleeves and get stuck into Cambodia, why not in Burma too?

The interdependence of Asean's overlapping problems has been emphasised by a separate crisis in the region's currency markets. Earlier this month, Thailand's central bank was forced to allow the baht to float freely after a sustained attack by currency speculators. The bug spread to the Philippines; in the last few days Indonesia and Singapore, have seen their currencies weakening.

The turmoil points up the fragility of the tiger economies, something which the admission of Laos and Burma will do nothing to reinforce. Both are being granted exemption from key economic requirements, in an attempt to get them on Asean's side rather than China's. But their backwardness will certainly exert a drag on the group and further strain the family ties.