Asian Summit Snags on Human Rights

Leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations link arms at the group's annual summit, held in Thailand. From left are Thailand's Abhisit Vejjajiva, Vietnam's Nguyen Tan Dung, Burma's Thein Sein, Brunei's Hassanal Bolkiah and Cambodia's Hun Sen.
Leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations link arms at the group's annual summit, held in Thailand. From left are Thailand's Abhisit Vejjajiva, Vietnam's Nguyen Tan Dung, Burma's Thein Sein, Brunei's Hassanal Bolkiah and Cambodia's Hun Sen. (By Tomohiro Ohsumi -- Bloomberg News)
By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 1, 2009

HUA HIN, Thailand, Feb. 28 -- A summit of Southeast Asian countries got off to a rocky start Saturday when the leaders of Burma and Cambodia threatened to walk out of a meeting on human rights if activists from their countries were included. The activists reluctantly offered to withdraw, and the meeting went ahead without them.

The annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is the first since the organization formally signed a charter that, among other things, mandates the establishment of an independent human rights body as part of a program to make the organization "more caring and sharing," in the words of Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thailand's prime minister and the group's chairman.

"We need to make ASEAN more people-centric. Protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms is a key feature of our community," Abhisit said at the opening ceremony Saturday afternoon. "The establishment of an ASEAN human rights body by the end of this year, the first ever of its kind in the region, will be a big step in this direction."

Rights groups said that Saturday's ultimatum from Burma and Cambodia shows that they are already trying to undermine the agreement.

"The Burmese military regime and the Cambodian government have set out to deliberately sabotage one of the most important aspects of the ASEAN charter," said Debbie Stothard of Altsean-Burma, a human rights advocacy group.

The refusal of Burmese and Cambodian authorities to engage with their critics will bolster skeptics who say the organization has always put the principle of noninterference above its promise to better the lives of the 570 million people who live in the 10 member countries.

Analysts have expressed doubt that all of the ASEAN members, especially Burma, are fully committed to the process. Burma was severely criticized in a recent U.S. State Department report for its human rights abuses.

Burma was controversially brought into ASEAN in 1997 on the grounds that regional engagement was more likely to change the country's direction than ostracism. But the experiment has been largely unsuccessful, and Burma's human rights record almost always threatens to overshadow the rest of the ASEAN agenda at its meetings.

Some observers say the organization's problem lies in execution rather than principle.

"If engagement is still the principle, you have to use the carrot and the stick, and I don't see any stick," said Bara Hasibuan, a political analyst based in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital.

After the human rights meeting, Abhisit made an effort to meet the excluded delegates. He later told reporters that the organization would "try to ensure that there is civil society participation" in its future work, the Associated Press reported.

"We will take gradual steps and encourage a wider participation," he said.

The ASEAN members are Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.


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