Asean inaugurates Human Rights Commission

Thomas Fuller
The New York Times

The secretary general of Asean, Surin Pitsuwan (right), linking hands with the Cambodian deputy prime minister Keat Chhon, as he looks at Brunei's Pehin Dato Lim Jock Seng (second from left), and Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein (left).Southeast Asian governments inaugurated their first human rights commission on Friday in what they hailed as a milestone for a region ruled by governments as diverse as the thriving democracy in Indonesia, the hermetic communist regime in Laos and the repressive military dictatorship in Myanmar.

The secretary general of Asean, Surin Pitsuwan, right, linking hands with the Cambodian deputy prime minister Keat Chhon, as he looks at Brunei’s Pehin Dato Lim Jock Seng, second from left, and Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein, left, on Friday.

But human rights activists called the body toothless and walked out of a meeting here Friday when “civil society” representatives from five countries were rejected by their governments.

“The commission has not been designed to be effective and impartial,” said Debbie Stothard, a human rights activist from Malaysia.

Establishing credibility for the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, as the body is formally named, was one of several challenges for leaders gathering at this seaside resort south of Bangkok for a three-day summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean.

Poor attendance marred the start of the meeting, when leaders from some of the largest Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, did not show up for the opening ceremony Friday, citing reasons ranging from weather disturbances to domestic obligations. They were scheduled to arrive later during the weekend.

The meeting, which follows one in April that was canceled when Thai anti-government protesters stormed the summit venue, will address preparedness for natural disasters, the response to future economic crises and free-trade agreements, among other issues.

The leaders of several non-Asean members — Australia, China, India, New Zealand and South Korea — were scheduled to join the meeting later during the weekend.

In his opening address on Friday, Thailand’s prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, emphasized the achievements of Asean, which was initially set up more than four decades ago partly as a bulwark against communism. In recent years, Asean has adopted a charter for the grouping, signed free trade agreements with other countries in the region and reduced tariff levels to negligible levels — although numerous other barriers to trade still exist between member countries.

“What remains is the onus that lies on Asean to prove that it can implement whatever has been agreed, declared, or envisioned,” Mr. Abhisit said, in an apparent response to criticism that the grouping is more talk than substance.

The human rights body inaugurated Friday appeared to reinforce that criticism. The job of the commission will be to promote human rights, but it will have no power to investigate governments or impose sanctions.

A statement distributed by the Thai government here said the commission would “promote and protect human rights by promoting public awareness and education.”

Mr. Abhisit acknowledged concerns that the commission’s scope was too limited but said it was part of an “evolutionary” process.

“The issue of human rights is not about condemnation, but about awareness, empowerment and improvement,” Mr. Abhisit said. “We shall not only demonstrate to the world that human rights is a priority but also show them realistic and constructive ways to deal with it.”

Yuyun Wahyuningrum, an Indonesian human rights delegate who walked out of the meeting with government representatives Friday, said human rights groups supported the creation of the commission, but were concerned that it was not independent enough. Commissioners were chosen by governments without outside consultation, she said.

“The process was very secretive,” she said.

Southeast Asia’s human rights record is blemished at best. Myanmar’s military government, which is a member of Asean, is currently detaining more than 2,000 political prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy leader whose party won a landslide election victory in 1990 that the ruling generals ignored. Cambodia’s parliament passed a law on Wednesday that bars demonstrations of more than 200 people. Malaysia’s government detains people it deems threats to domestic security without trial and maintains tight controls on television stations and newspapers.

Asean has ambitions to create a single market by 2015 among its 10 member nations, which have a combined population of nearly 600 million people, twice the population of the United States.

But its main challenge in recent months has been to tamp down long-running conflicts and disagreements. Relations between Thailand and Cambodia have worsened over a border dispute near an ancient hilltop temple, Preah Vihear. Over the past year, troops in the border area have skirmished several times, leaving seven people dead.

Cambodia’s nationalistic and authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen, regularly delivers diatribes against Thailand and has pointedly offered asylum to Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted Thai prime minister who is sought by the Thai authorities on outstanding arrest warrants.

Soon after arriving at the meeting Friday afternoon Mr. Hun Sen said Mr. Thaksin would be allowed to stay in Cambodia and serve as his economic adviser.

“People talk about Aung San Suu Kyi from Myanmar. Why can’t we talk about Thaksin?” he asked.

The Cambodian government said Friday it would reject any extradition request from Thailand if Mr. Thaksin moved to Cambodia.

The host of the meeting, Thailand, deployed more than 30,000 security personnel for the summit to deter supporters of Mr. Thaksin from disrupting the event. Mr. Thaksin was removed from power in a 2006 military coup.

Elsewhere in the region, Indonesia and Malaysia have failed to resolve disputes over territory on Borneo island. Emotionally charged disagreements over the origins of songs, traditional dances and batik cloth-printing techniques have flared in recent months.

Territorial disputes also strain relations between the Philippines and Malaysia and Singapore and Malaysia. In the South China Sea, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam all have claims to areas rich in natural gas deposits.