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The moral compass of ASEAN

But military weakness has had other benefits, forcing national security to be based on diplomacy, international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes. It's telling that China's recently released defense white paper made no reference to international law.

Beyond democracy, the Philippines is a regional leader in human rights. The Philippines has the freest media in Southeast Asia and it is the only Southeast Asia and country to be rated by Freedom House as having a "free" internet. The only blight on its media freedoms remains violence towards journalists. If the government would tackle that, the Philippines would truly be the media and information leader of the region, an economic boon as the Philippines tries to transition to higher value added manufacturing and internet technology.

Civil society is robust and NGOs operate without harassment. This is in stark contrast to Thailand, Vietnam and now Cambodia, which is pushing through a law that would severely restrict the operations of NGOs.

In 2006, the Philippines abolished the death penalty, which has no proven deterrent on crime and which has too often been applied unevenly, capriciously for political purposes. This has been most evident in 2015 in Indonesia where the execution of foreign drug mules plays well politically.

There are still many shortfalls in human rights in the Philippines. There are too many extra judicial killings, too much police torture, and other abuses. But the National Human Rights Commission has teeth, unlike so many of its ASEAN partners. In Thailand, the junta is considering scrapping its Human Rights Commission altogether.

All countries have internal security problems, no more than the Philippines. But unlike the Singapore and Malaysia, the Philippines has not relied on draconian Internal Security Acts that allow detention without trial as the cornerstone of their security policy. Indeed, Malaysia’s new Prevention of Terror Act, not only allows for indefinite detention, but possibly torture. Likewise, the Philippines has worked to quell its insurgencies without the use of martial law or emergency decrees that strip citizens of fundamental rights and give security forces blanket immunity, as in Thailand’s restive south.

The peace process with the MILF has stalled in the Senate, which is a real setback to peace and prosperity in Mindanao. But the creative approach of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), which addressed core grievances of the Bangsamoro, remains worthy of emulation. The CAB and its implementing legislation the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) are an honest attempt to forge a durable political solution through social justice, inclusion and the equitable distribution of resources. Most importantly, the Philippines recognized the historical and cultural rights and grievances of the Bangsamoro. Nothing of the sort is likely to end insurgencies in southern Thailand, Papua, or in northeastern Myanmar.

And finally, in the recent case of Rohingya refugees, the Philippines led by example, offering to take in refugees from a crisis it neither made, nor profited from, nor had any longterm interest in. Other than Acehnese fishermen who displayed a profound act of humanity, no one else offered the Rohingya and protection, until they were compelled to. The Philippines was the lone voice of conscience.

There is much work to be done in the Philippines, economically, politically, legally and socially.

But the Philippines has quietly emerged as a moral compass for ASEAN. It is a vibrant democracy with a robust system of checks and balances. It has the freest press, internet, and association, all of which have made government more accountable and responsive. Its security is based on diplomacy and the international law, not coercion.

With Indonesia inwardly focused, Thailand consumed by domestic political infighting and looking to have a prolonged political stalemate, and mounting scandals weakening Malaysian leadership, ASEAN is seriously adrift.

The Rohingya fiasco in which Myanmar's treatment persecution could not even be addressed should compel ASEAN to scrap its policy of non-interference. Likewise there are growing calls for ASEAN to draft a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea without China.

Both will require leadership, not based on power, but commitment to the rule of law and moral norms. This is the Philippines' opportunity. A true leader leads by example. –

Abuza is an independent analyst, specializing in Southeast Asian politics and security issues. He is also the author of Militant Islam in Southeast Asia: Crucible of Terror.