HUA HIN, THAILAND — This year was supposed to be different.
Determined to overcome its reputation as an elite fraternity in which hard issues generally went unmentioned, the 10-member Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations gathered in Thailand over the weekend to welcome the dawn of what Thailand's youthful leader has billed a "new" ASEAN.
Yet even before the annual summit began, political rivalries and festering embarrassments dominated headlines and raised questions about the group's relevance on the evolving world stage -- and its resolve to tackle difficult issues such as poverty and human rights.
Under the banner "Enhancing Connectivity, Empowering Peoples," Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is hosting the first gathering of ASEAN since the 42-year-old group ratified a long-awaited charter late last year. The charter laid the foundation for forming a European Union-like community, without a common currency, by 2015.
"ASEAN used to be a joke," said Kavi Chongkittavorn, a leading Thai journalist and former assistant to the secretary-general of ASEAN. "In the old days, they would get together because they had known each other for years and play golf and talk business. Now it's a different generation, and different language is being used to engage people.
"ASEAN is no longer a joke . . . but they have to catch up to new political concepts, or the whole thing will crumble."
Kavi said the group is divided along ideological and generational lines that have left it polarized on issues such as human rights, political intervention and territorial disputes.
One example is the split between Cambodia's prime minister, former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen, and Abhisit, an Oxford-educated economist born in England.
Before arriving at the summit Friday, Hun Sen, the longest-serving leader of an ASEAN nation, sent an unmistakable salvo Abhisit's way by offering political asylum to Thailand's fugitive former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.
Hun Sen called Thaksin his "eternal friend" and compared him to Myanmar's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.
An ASEAN summit in April was abruptly canceled when anti-government protesters aligned with Thaksin smashed through the glass doors of a convention center in the Thai resort of Pattaya, forcing several leaders to be evacuated by helicopter from the roof.
Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006. He skipped bail after an indictment on corruption charges and has been living at various locations -- including Nicaragua, Montenegro and the United Arab Emirates.
Thaksin, who retains wide popularity in Thailand's rural northeast and has vowed to return to power, has consistently mocked Abhisit, saying he is politically immature and heads a shaky coalition.
"This was vintage Hun Sen. He sees Abhisit as a young, 45-year-old novice and he wants to test him," Kavi said. "This represents all the differences in ASEAN. You have dynamic new leaders and old-time politicians who have dominated the political scenes for decades. Hun Sen represents the old generation -- he's the last of the dinosaurs."
Activists from across the region blasted ASEAN's first human rights body, inaugurated Friday, calling it toothless and ineffectual.
Officials had billed the formation of the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights as a watershed event aimed at reining in the alleged human rights abuses of some member states, specifically military-run Myanmar, where an estimated 2,100 political prisoners remain behind bars.
But a civil society group stormed out of a meeting Friday when five of their representatives were rejected by officials from their home countries -- indicative of an ongoing reluctance to face hard questions about human rights.
Longtime Myanmar activist Khin Ohmar, who said she was kicked out of the forum Friday, charged that only representatives handpicked by their governments were allowed to attend the meeting.
"This is the same old story of ASEAN: the same attitude and same behavior toward their own people. There was all this commitment for the new charter and the first human rights commission -- to have this happen is just embarrassing," said Ohmar, coordinator of the Burma Partnership and a member of the ASEAN Task Force on Burma. "This is two steps backward. Why are they so afraid to hear from civil society?"