ASEAN and human rights: Resisting Western pressure or emulating the West?

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Observers of Southeast Asian affairs commonly assume that the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are reluctant to pursue liberal agendas, and that their main concern is to resist pressure from Western powers to improve their human rights practice. This article, however, argues that such a conventional view is too simplistic. The Southeast Asian countries have voluntarily been pursuing liberal agendas, and their main concern here is to be identified as 'Western' countries - advanced countries with legitimate international status. They have 'mimetically' been adopting the norm of human rights which is championed by the advanced industrialized democracies, with the intention of securing ASEAN's identity as a legitimate institution in the community of modern states. Ultimately, they have been pursuing liberal agendas, for the same reason as cash-strapped developing countries have luxurious national airlines and newly-independent countries institute national flags. Yet it should be noted that the progress of ASEAN's liberal reform has been modest. A conventional strategy for facilitating this reform would be to put more pressure on the members of ASEAN; however, the usefulness of such a strategy is diminishing. The development of an East Asian community, the core component of which is the ASEAN-China concord, makes it difficult for the Western powers to exercise influence over the Southeast Asian countries. Hence, as an alternative strategy, this article proposes that ASEAN's external partners should 'globalize' the issue of its liberal reform, by openly assessing its human rights record in global settings, with the aim of boosting the concern of its members for ASEAN's international standing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)619-637
Number of pages19
JournalPacific Review
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2009 Dec


  • East Asian community
  • Human rights
  • Isomorphism
  • Sociological institutionalism
  • Southeast Asia


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