ASEAN has long been a good example of how small countries can make their collective voices heard in the international community if they act and speak in unison.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its foundation.

For Japan, ASEAN is an important partner in trade and investment as well as a vital arena for multilateral diplomacy.

It is hoped that ASEAN will develop further as a linchpin of peace and stability in Asia.

The regional bloc, which was created by five Southeast Asian countries as a regional bulwark against communism, now has 10 members. The combined population of the member nations is more than 600 million, larger than the number for the European Union.

It has been predicted that ASEAN’s economy will keep growing steadily, surpassing Japan in nominal gross domestic product within 10 years.

As its key goals, the group is pursuing political and social integration among its members as well as their economic union.

Since the end of the Cold War, ASEAN has launched a variety of frameworks for multilateral dialogue that also involve countries outside the bloc.

They include the ASEAN Regional Forum, a multilateral forum for discussions on security issues in the Asia-Pacific region, the ASEAN Plus Three (Japan, China and South Korea) Summit and the East Asia Summit, a forum for strategic dialogue among the leaders of ASEAN and eight other countries including the United States, Russia and India.

We applaud ASEAN’s dynamic efforts to help build mutual trust among countries, which have contributed greatly to stability in the region.

There have been, however, worrying signs of erosion of democracy among ASEAN countries since the beginning of this century.

If they lose sight of such crucial democratic values as human rights and the freedom of speech, ASEAN countries will be unable to solve their social injustice or secure political stability at home. ASEAN’s international reputation and influence will also be damaged.

Many Southeast Asian nations achieved economic development under a dictatorship.

In the 1980s and 1990s, however, most autocratic regimes in the region were toppled by popular uprisings and pro-democracy movements, opening the door to free elections and the rule of law in the countries.

But the trend has been reversed in recent years. In Thailand, the military grabbed power in 2006 in a coup and the country’s return to a civilian rule has been delayed.

The Philippines, which was the first in the region to free itself from a dictatorship, has faced international criticism over the current government’s extrajudicial war on drugs.

In Myanmar, a military dictatorship was replaced by a civilian government in 2011. But the country’s Constitution, which gives the military strong political power, has yet to be amended. There also has been little progress toward a reconciliation with ethnic minorities.

In the freedom of the press assessments of countries for 2017 made by Freedom House, an international nongovernmental organization, Indonesia and the Philippines fell in the category of “partly free,” while the remaining eight ASEAN members were classified into the group of “not free.”

There are also sources of concern in changes in the international environment surrounding the region.

While China, whose human rights track record is dismal, is expanding its influence in Southeast Asia, the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump doesn’t appear to be as eager to promote democracy in the region as past U.S. administrations.

It is unlikely that the members of ASEAN, which values diversity in the region, will make progress toward democracy at the same pace.

But the leaders of the member countries adopted an ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in their meeting five years ago.

ASEAN should continue its efforts to put the principles laid down in the declaration into practice.

Such efforts would lay a solid foundation for ASEAN’s development in the next half-century of its history.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 5