On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Moving towards one Asean civil society

The fact is that Myanmar has become an embarrassment. The years of so-called constructive engagement, in using the soft-approach, have fallen flat.

The ageing military leaders have ignored moves to open the country's doors. They have instead clammed up.

Even as their country continued to slide economically, they have turned a blind eye to the unhappiness at home and in the region.

But as the leaders of Asean gather in Kuala Lumpur for the grouping's 11th summit starting tomorrow, they must realise that the importance of a civil society should be addressed by all of them, not just Myanmar.

>From Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh to Brunei, they must wake up to the fact that they are facing a new generation of citizens who are exposed to the free flow of information on the Internet.

In this globally connected world – be it via the Internet, through SMS or MMS, or global 24-hour TV networks – no one in government should seriously expect to suppress information if he wishes to remain credible.

The people will not accept a sterile press and neither will they accept politicians and journalists who attempt to impose a tailored agenda on them.

It would be sheer hypocrisy if Asean leaders wax rhetoric about Myanmar when their own human rights records are questionable.

The human rights issue will be the main concern of the region and the people expect their governments to be more open and tolerant.

The floodgates opened long ago and Asean leaders should be able to see the trends ahead.

The public demand for answers on the controversial video clip of a woman who had to do ear-squats in the nude while in police custody is one example of how Malaysians have become more conscious of their democratic rights.

Many of our Members of Parliament, regardless of their political affiliation, have risen to the occasion by speaking up.

For the first time, we see MPs putting aside their political differences to jointly take up issues affecting the people.

It is certainly refreshing. It offers young Malaysians, cynical of the establishment, hope that their political future would be better.

Abdullah has responded well to the video clip issue with the prompt setting up of an independent committee to look into it.

For a civil society to work in any country,  there must be an end to nepotism and despotism, and non-governmental institutions must be allowed to flourish as they act as a form of check and balance against the state.

Democratic reforms, liberal values and civil society are not Western concepts. No one should even suggest that, in the name of nationalism, merely to hide their own intolerance, religious or even racial biases.

As leaders sit down tomorrow to push Myanmar for more democratic reforms, it would be good if they, too, also evaluate their own state of affairs.

The right to choose is a universal value. Democracy does not merely mean holding elections.

The fact is that there is still political lawlessness in some Asean countries.

The people of Asean long to see the day when there is one Asean civil society, and it is not too much to ask.