Tough start for ASEAN Human Rights Commission

October 23, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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James Hookway
The Wall Street Journal

Southeast Asia’s efforts to create a commission to curb human rights abuses and encourage free-trade deals got off to a rocky start Friday when delegates from several countries refused to meet with a group of pre-selected civil society activists.  

Diplomats say the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Human Rights Mechanism, launched at the trade bloc’s annual summit in Cha-am, Thailand, is designed to make the group more attractive to potential trading partners such as the United States and European Union.

Asean has struggled for years to shake off the stigma of including military-run Myanmar among its members. Other members such as Vietnam have also attracted international criticism for their human rights records, potentially slowing progress in improving the region’s trade links.

The Asean commission, however, is toothless, critics say, with no powers to punish offenders. Compounding the problem, the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and the Philippines Friday refused to meet with human rights activists they initially had agreed to see on the sidelines of the Asean summit, the Associated Press reported.

“By shutting us out of the process, it doesn’t mean the problems will go away,” said Debbie Stothard, a member of the Asean People’s Forum, a group of non-government organizations in the region.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva acknowledged the limitations in Asean’s human rights commission while opening the summit at this seaside resort earlier in the day, but stressed that the new agency was still valuable in highlighting abuses and putting pressure on member countries.

“The issue of human rights is not about condemnation but about awareness,” he said.

Some Asean countries have become increasingly bold in their criticism of other members. Indonesia, for instance, has warned Myanmar that elections scheduled to be held in the military-run state next year won’t be taken seriously unless they include members of jailed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.

But for the most part, the region has turned a blind eye towards the country’s reported human rights abuses, and many countries in Asean continue to maintain investments in the country despite stiff sanctions against Myanmar from the U.S. and Europe. Thailand, for instance, buys large quantities of natural gas from Myanmar to help run its domestic power grid.

Analysts say Asean’s traditional reluctance to interfere in its members’ political affairs is likely to predominate at this year’s talks, however, which will expand to include China, South Korea and Japan on Saturday.

On Sunday, the leaders of India, Australia and New Zealand will join discussions on how the region can deepen its economic ties.

Five countries reject civil society reps at Asean summit
D Arul Rajoo

The governments of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Singapore have rejected members of civil groups from their respective countries at the 15th Asean Summit here.

Debby Stothard, of the Alternative Asean Network, said they were informed by the Thai Foreign Ministry at 11pm yesterday that the leaders would not meet the five people nominated by the civil groups.

“Some governments like Singapore have even replaced the nominees with their own representatives,” she said as the summit kicked off at the Dusit Thani Hotel in the seaside resort here Friday.

She said the remaining five representatives from Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam were told to come to the meeting at 7am Friday, five hours before the scheduled Informal Meeting between the Leaders and the civil society groups.

Stothard said the civil groups were disappointed that the representatives were not allowed to speak at the 30-minute meeting, and instead only an academician from the Chulalongkorn University would be allowed to talk.

“We are still trying to get more people to talk at the meeting,” she said.

The rejected civil society representatives are Khin Ohmar (Myanmar), Sister Crescencia L. Lucero (Philippines), Sinapan Samydorai (Singapore), Manichanh Philaphanh (Laos) and Nay Vanda (Cambodia).

Malaysia is represented by Moon Hui Tah, campaign coordinator of Suaran, a Malaysian human rights organisation.

The dialogue between the 10 Asean Leaders and civil society groups was introduced during the 14th Asean Summit held here last February.

The first meeting itself was embroiled in controversy after leaders of Myanmar and Cambodia refused to meet the representatives from their respective countries.

Among the highlights of the 15th Summit is the launch of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (Aichr).

Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) commissioner, Datuk Muhammad Shafee Abdullah has been appointed Malaysia’s representative to the body.


Statement from the Organisers of the ASEAN Peoples Forum/ASEAN civil society conference
23 Oct 2009

At 1130pm, Thurs, Thai foreign Ministry officials informed organizers of APF that 5 out of 10 civil society representatives were rejected from the interface meeting with ASEAN heads of government. The remaining representatives were told to be ready for pick up at 7.A.M., nearly 5 hours before the scheduled meeting. (see below for list of delegates).
These representatives arrived at the Dusit Hotel and were instructed that they would not be permitted to speak at the event. The only person from civil society allowed to make a statement would be Dr Surichai Wangaeo of Chulalongkorn University, who was originally appointed as moderator of the Interface.
The representatives were further shocked to learn that Singapore and Myanmar had selected substitutes from government-sponsored agencies. Singapore selected a substitute from a charity and the Myanmar regime selected Sitt Aye and Win Myaing, of the Anti-Narcotics Association (Win Myaing is a former high-ranking police officer).
These developments rendered the interface, an important space for civil society to engage with government officials, utterly meaningless. Therefore, the representatives of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia decided to walk out of the meeting.
We feel strongly that the rejection of our democratically-selected representatives is a rejection of both civil society and the democratic process. Our delegates were selected during the 3-day APF/ACSC, Oct 18-20. Through this action, the governments concerned are fundamentally undermining the spirit and content of the ASEAN Charter that they ratified a year ago.
The behaviour of the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Philippines and Burma in rejecting their civil society representatives sabotages the credibility of the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) which is being inaugurated today.
Civil society has been committed to the objectives of a people-centred ASEAN as enshrined in the Charter. We have remained determined in our commitment to the essential dialogue process despite the insults and obstacles generated by some officials. We were flexible when 2 out of 10 representatives were rejected in February. Civil society engaged with governments for the past few months in order to improve the relationship, however it is clear that the commitment to engagement has been one-sided, now that 5 out of 10 have been rejected, and the rest were essentially gagged.
We are deeply disappointed at the irresponsibility and apparent irrationality of the governments’ position. At this time of crisis, we were absolutely committed to an opportunity to present civil society’s solutions. The tactics of the governments concerned prove they are not open to discussing solutions to the urgent problems confronting ASEAN – both governments and peoples.
Finally we plead with these leaders to stop trying to kill the spirit of an ASEAN community. Such moves not only hurt the development of the region but also the credibility of individual member states and ASEAN as a whole.
Ms. Khin Ohmar, Burma/Myanmar
Mr. Nay Vanda, Cambodia
Mrs. Manichanh Philaphanh, Lao PDR
Sister Crescencia L. Lucero, Phillipines
Mr. Sinapan Samydorai, Singapore.
Included but gagged:
* Ms. Yuyun Wahyuningrum, Indonesia
* Mr. Moon Hui Tah, Malaysia
* Ms. Sawart Pramoonsilp, Thailand
Ms. Tran Thi Thu Thuy, Vietnam
Dato Paduka Zainal Momin, Brunei
* walked out