Thailand: Southeast Asian leaders wrap up a summit Sunday, they hoped would highlight their championship of human rights, but instead suffered a setback when military-ruled Myanmar and Cambodia refused to talk to two pro-democracy activists.
The prominent activists were barred from a meeting Saturday on human rights in the region, after the leaders of the two countries threatened to walk out. The activists had been selected as delegates for their countries.
The two-day summit of the 10-nation bloc ends Sunday with a general declaration and a separate document on the region’s economy as it faces the global financial crisis.
US deputy assistant secretary of state Scot Marciel called Saturday’s incident “unfortunate,” and human rights advocates said it again proved Myanmar, also known as Burma, would continue to hamstring the Association of Southeast Asian Nations if it remained a member.
Asean, which encompasses a region of more than 500 million people, includes two communist regimes, two constitutional monarchies, a military dictatorship and fledgling democracies.
The meeting went ahead without the two pro-democracy delegates, Khin Ohnmar, a prominent Myanmar activist awarded Sweden’s Anna Lindh human rights prize last year, and Pen Somony from the Cambodia Volunteers for Civil Society.
The incident clearly displeased the host organizers, but Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva did not directly address it in his opening address. He told reporters that Asean would “try to ensure that there is civil society participation” in its future work.
“We will take gradual steps and encourage a wider participation,” he said.
The summit was intended to focus on measures to confront the global financial crisis as well as economic, political and security integration, but human rights issues took the spotlight.
On Friday, delegates lauded a forthcoming Asean human rights body to promote fundamental freedoms as a landmark event in the group’s 42-year history. However, critics noted that the body, expected to begin functioning later this year, would lack power to punish violators such as Myanmar with expulsion or sanctions.
“The military regime of Burma is the one who has been sabotaging Asean ever since they joined Asean in 1997,” said Debbie Stothard with the human rights group ALTSEAN-Burma.
Asean was also set to endorse an early warning system Sunday to defuse regional conflicts as it seeks to become a European Union-like community by 2015, according to a confidential document obtained by AP.
“More efforts are needed in strengthening the existing modes of pacific settlement of disputes to avoid or settle future disputes,” says the final draft of the Asean political-security community blueprint.
But officials stressed that numerous stumbling blocks remain to true economic, political and security integration.
While Southeast Asia has not seen major conflicts since the Vietnam War era, tensions and confrontations persist. Thailand and Cambodia narrowly avoided a shootout last year in an ongoing dispute over an ancient temple along their common border, and territorial claims remain unresolved in the resource-rich South China Sea. Bloody Muslim insurgencies also plague southern Thailand and the southern Philippines.
The summit is the first since the group signed a landmark charter in December making Asean a legal entity and moving it a step closer to its goal of integration.
Asean’s 10 members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.