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The evolving norm of non-interference in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Gray, Mitchell Gordon

Abstract

Intrastate security problems are abundant in the post-Cold War international political environment, and a growing number of states have demonstrated a willingness to interfere in the sovereign affairs of other states in situations of humanitarian crisis. In September 1999, Indonesian military and militia punished the population of East Timor for voting to become independent from Indonesia. Southeast Asia's regional security organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), failed to react effectively to the crisis. ASEAN operates under a set of norms that strictly prohibits members from interfering in each other's affairs, and this hinders regional security cooperation. As a result, outside powers stepped in to protect the East Timorese. This violated another of ASEAN's norms, namely that of finding regional solutions to regional problems. ASEAN's non-interference principles leave the members vulnerable to extra-regional interference. A constructivist theoretical perspective on international relations is used in this paper to examine a challenge to ASEAN non-interference norms that has developed since 1997. The 1997 Asian economic crisis exposed the weakness of a regional organization that does not communicate transparently. Also that year, ASEAN expanded to include highly authoritarian Myanmar. This widened the gap within the Association between democratizing states such as Thailand and the Philippines that are amenable to incremental changes to non-interference provisions, and states such as Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia that advocate strict observation of state sovereignty. The result is a normative stalemate. The East Timor crisis strengthens the case of those who advocate a change within ASEAN toward a position of sovereignty-neutrality, under which member governments have the regular protections of sovereignty, but can no longer expect to act with impunity within their borders if human rights are at stake. Arguments for the reevaluation of non-interference are strengthened as ASEAN leaders become increasingly aware that problems developing in one country can affect others in the region. Many obstacles to change remain, though, and support for normative evolution has yet to penetrate deeply into ASEAN's inner circles of power.

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