By: Our Correspondent

Although the Thai conflict seems to have subsided for now, Thailand has
not reached the end of the protracted political trouble. Some of the
red-shirted members have returned home in the north and northeast
regions, some disappeared in obscurity. 

The Abhisit Vejjajiva
government is certain that the radicals within the red-shirted movement
are still on the loose and that they may strike again. But for now it is
time for the government to turn its attention to yet another exigent
matter: the issue of human rights violations.

This issue is
important not only for the Thais, especially those who lost their loved
ones in a series of clashes between the security forces and the
red-shirted protesters, but also for the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations, which has recently – and belatedly — begun transforming itself
into a more serious, legalized institution. The issue will inevitably
challenge the newly-established Asean Inter-governmental Commission for
Human Rights, designed to promote and protect human rights by elevating
public awareness and education.

When it was founded in October
last year, Asean critics immediately slammed the rroghts commission for
being ineffective right at the start. This is because the commission has
no power to investigate governments or impose sanctions. But Prime
Minister Abhisit, on behalf of Thailand, last year's Asean Chair, boldly
responded to the critics, "What remains is the onus that lies on Asean
to prove that it can implement whatever has been agreed, declared, or
envisioned."

It is now appropriate for Abhisit's government to
attest that Asean matters to Thailand. The death toll as a result of the
violent confrontations stands at 85, while there were more than 1,400
injuries. Most of those who were killed are civilians, mainly the
red-shirted street demonstrators. Thailand, as a member of Asean, has
the responsibility to protect the credibility and reputation of the
grouping, as much as of itself. While Prime Minister Abhisit has
promised a thorough investigation of the killings, he may want to "keep
Asean in the loop" in order to accomplish the above-mentioned goal.

Why
is the phrase "keeping in the loop" used instead of "involved"? This is
because Asean's non-interference principle, despite having been watered
down over the years, has not been abolished. Human rights are a
sensitive issue. And not all members of Asean are willing to discuss it,
especially if the human rights situation in their own countries has
remained somewhat contentious. 

But the recent move made by
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who initially proposed a
special summit on the Thai crisis, was highly commendable. Although the
summit did not take place, it showed that some Asean members are ready
to cross into a new threshold where certain sensitive issues should be
openly discussed, even when this might not lead to any actions.

Abhisit's
Democrat Party has often claimed that it strictly upholds the principle
of human rights protection. Accordingly, it has long been known as a
fierce critic of Burma's military regime. Surin Pitsuwan, former Foreign
Minister from the Democrat Party and now Asean Secretary-General,
proposed in 1999 the flexible engagement policy. This policy gave a
green light to Asean members to raise their concerns over a given
situation in their neighboring countries and the prospect that such
situation could create a spillover effect across the border. But it did
not really take off.

Looking at this claim, it will only be
even-handed if the Democrat government permits its Asean neighbors to
voice their concerns over the Thai situation that could generate an
impact on regional peace and security. In fact, the government could do
more, as suggested by the Thai veteran journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn,
particularly in inviting members of the rights commission as "observers"
in the fact-finding teams in the investigation of the violent
incidents. 

The question of to what extent Asean should be "kept
in the loop" has not only been actively discussed within Thailand, but
also in various regional capitals. Some have without doubt expressed
their discomfort in accepting the association's emerging role in
post-conflict resolution and human rights protection. They may believe
that this could set a new, yet awkward, benchmark for Asean and the way
it manages its internal affairs from now on.

In many ways, the
Thai crisis is a perfect test for the association to readjust its
priorities. Members including Thailand will have to ask themselves if
they want to be handcuffed by a single unfortunate situation and let it
impede the overall goal of building a regional community. Asean has come
far from its humble beginnings in 1967. It now owns a charter and has
forged close alliances with its many dialogue partners. The mission
towards a true regionalism will not be succeeded if some members
continue to perceive Asean from their own narrow perspectives.

Abhisit
still has time to make it right. Regardless of the result of the
investigation, his government has been blotted in Thai historical
textbooks because it ordered military crackdowns that resulted in
civilian deaths and injuries. Making the investigation a transparent
process, through the participation of local and international civil
societies as well as the observation of the commission, the Abhisit
government might just be able to rescue some sort of legitimacy while
lessening pressure from his opponents. Moreover, it could perhaps help
reinvent Asean as a champion of human rights protection. This could
assist in strengthening the process of community-building and
regionalism.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Fellow at the ASEAN
Studies Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. This is
his personal view.