Southeast Asia has experienced a period of sustained upheaval since research for this project began in 1995. Assumptions underlying the work and the empirical foundations on which they are based have experienced corresponding turbulence. The human and political as well as economic impact of the regional crisis, beginning in 1997, has been profound. A major regime change in Indonesia and the emergence of East Timor as an independent state have been among the more dramatic developments. Currently, the resignation or impeachment of President Wahid appear highly probable. Intensifying struggles for democratic reform in Malaysia, major constitutional change in Thailand and enlargement of ASEAN membership may prove of equally long term significance to regional human rights development.
This account explores diffuse interactions between democracy, human rights and economic development in Southeast Asian regional and domestic politics, with parallel accounts of ASEAN states' strategies in balancing national sovereignty priorities and pressures to conform with international human rights law, as articulated in United Nations covenants and conventions. The original country focus on Indonesia and Malaysia is reflected in specialised chapters. Together with Singapore, these countries were the most articulate advocates of relativist cum Asian values approaches in regional human rights debates before 1997. These themes have retained their salience, although changing forms since the economic crisis. Subsequently, the work has been expanded to include, though unevenly, all ten ASEAN countries.
Australia combines western history and Asian geography, and is of necessity closely engaged with the region. Comparison of Australia's bilateral relations with ASEAN states indicates a pragmatic approach to integrating human rights policies with regional diplomacy and considerations of national sovereignty, security and economic interest. Accounts of internal debates draw out often overlooked tensions between western-style democracy and universal human rights. As Southeast Asian countries democratise, and therefore societies as well as governments interact more closely, human rights are becoming increasingly part of such engagement. In the short term at least, democratisation in Indonesia and East Timor's secession, coinciding with populist re-directions in Australia's regional policy, have worsened relations at both societal and elite levels.