Denis D. Gray
The Associated Press
Southeast Asian nations unveil a landmark human rights watchdog this week, but critics charge that it will be both toothless and include in its membership one of the world’s worst human rights offenders – military-ruled Myanmar.
Myanmar is sure to prove a burden again as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations holds its annual summit, undermining the bloc’s international standing and efforts to forge free trade areas with the United States and Europe.
“While ASEAN may try to move ahead, Burma remains the elephant in the room. It absolutely undermines the spirit of what ASEAN could ever do,” says Debbie Stothard, an activist with the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, as the country is also known.
The new body, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, is unlikely to set free Myanmar’s 2,000 political prisoners, including democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, or curb other violations: It cannot punish member nations, and focuses on promotion rather than protection of human rights.
ASEAN leaders realize it’s just a start but say the commission can be given more teeth later.
And while members of the 10-nation bloc have recently escalated their criticism of Myanmar, the ASEAN summit will again act by consensus, avoid confrontations and maintain that the group’s engagement approach to Myanmar works better than the West’s sanctions and threats.
The three-day conference, which begins Friday, will also include talks with leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. Preliminary meetings begin Wednesday.
On the agenda are discussions on how to achieve a European Union-style community by 2015, cooperation on education, food security and bio-energy development and the signing of an ASEAN Declaration on Climate Change.
The Thai government has thrown a security cordon around the summit venue, a beach resort 200 kilometers (120 miles) south of Bangkok, to prevent anti-government demonstrations. In April, protesters stormed an Asian summit in the seaside city of Pattaya, shutting down the meeting and forcing the evacuation of several leaders by helicopter and boat.
This time around, security forces have been empowered to impose curfews and restrict freedom of movement around Cha-Am resort and Bangkok.
Myanmar, which joined the 42-year-old bloc in 1997 despite international outrage, comes to the summit having recently released some political prisoners and allowed Suu Kyi to meet with Western diplomats and a government minister.
In a sharp break with former policy of shunning Myanmar, the U.S. government has announced it would engage the junta in direct, high-level talks while continuing its longtime economic sanctions.
But the ruling generals have also arrested more dissidents in recent weeks, and made it clear that nobody will dictate their course, not even its staunchest ally China, with which relations have soured since August when the junta launched an offensive against ethnic minorities along the Chinese border.
“Some powerful nations are resorting to various ways to pressure and influence our nation under various pretexts. However, the (military) government does not get frightened whenever intimidated,” said junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe last week.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last month urged ASEAN to take a tougher line with Myanmar. But in the end, ASEAN leaders are only likely to prod their fellow member to accelerate its so-called “road to democracy,” which includes elections in 2010.
“It is obvious that ASEAN is incapable of making any positive political change in the country. I don’t have any high hopes,” said Nyan Win, spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in Yangon, Myanmar.
ASEAN consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.