Asean civil society delegates protest the exclusion of five delegates from a meeting with Asean heads of government. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Asean civil society delegates protest the exclusion of five delegates from a meeting with Asean heads of government. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

HUA HIN, Thailand. Pictures beamed into the ASEAN summit media center from the informal foreign ministers dinner showed the Burma’s Foreign Minister Nyan Win relaxing tableside with his counterparts from the regional bloc. Later, as Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva formally launched the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the six heads of government present joined hands with the ten commission members on stage, in what was meant to be highlight of the ASEAN summit.

Despite the fanfare, the real worth of the AICHR was questioned before today. Since the terms of reference for the body were announced earlier this year, the AICHR was decried for having limited mandate. Aung Din is Executive Director of the US Campaign for Burma. He testified on Burma to the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs on October 21. Discussing the new body with The Irrawaddy, he said “It will be run by government officials. Burma, along with Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Brunei, will resist and block any meaningful action proposed by other more open members.”

While the AICHR will ostensibly work to promote the concept of human rights, it lacks any competence to sanction member states for human rights abuses. PM Abhisit acknowledged as much in his launch speech, noting “criticisms by analysts” of the terms of reference for the new body.

As current ASEAN Chair, the Thai Prime Minister said that the Cha-am/Huahin Declaration launching the new Commission “showed the commitment of ASEAN member-states to realise up the historic quest of the people of southeast Asia for freedom”.

That commitment was rendered hollow very quickly however. Launching the AICHR, PM Abhisit stated that “civil society groups should rest assured that you now have a partner that works for you”. However, thirty minutes later, a delegation of ASEAN civil society organisations denounced the new commission, saying that government attitudes to civil society “sabotaged the credibility” of the AICHR.

Earlier this morning, a meeting between civil society members from ASEAN member states and the heads of government was stillborn. At 11.30pm on Thursday night, Thai Foreign Ministry officials informed the delegates – elected at a meeting of the ASEAN People’s Forum over October 18-20 – that the Governments of Burma, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines had vetoed the chosen NGO representatives.

The Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian representatives faced no obstacle from their Governments. In solidarity with their five counterparts, they refused to attend the meeting, leaving the remaining delegates – all hand-picked by governments – to attend.

Indonesian civil society representative Yuyun Wahyuningrum meets the reporters. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Indonesian civil society representative Yuyun Wahyuningrum meets the reporters. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Burmese delegate Khin Ohn Mar said that “this attempt to undermine the civil society meeting goes back to the ASEAN People’s Forum, when the Burmese Generals sent two former high-ranking police officers to the meeting, and they sought to undermine discussion of all the human rights violations that have been taking place in Burma for many years”

PM Abhisit said that US$200,000 was available to fund the AICHR, but said that he hoped more money from ASEAN, and beyond, would be made available. ASEAN will review the commission’s terms of reference every five years to “further develop and strengthen the mandate and function of the body”, according to the Thai PM, who stressed that critics should not see the AICHR as “an end in itself, but a work in progress.”

The UN has urged ASEAN leaders to make the human rights body “credible”. However, as Aung Din outlined, the AICHR could “make ASEAN more shameful than impressive”

Given that its launch has been juxtaposed with a blatant snub to NGOs representatives from five member-states, this seems to be the case at the outset. Kraisak Choonhavan is a Democrat MP in Thailand, and Chair of the ASEAN Interparliamentary Myanmar (Burma) Caucus. He told The Irrawaddy that “this [refusal to meet civil society] bodes badly for the region.”

Perhaps the most surprising snub was delivered to Sr. Cres Lucero, executive director of Task Force Detainees of the Philippines. She said that “ASEAN governments are undermining the fundamentals not only of the AICHR, but of the ASEAN Charter, which they themselves set up.” Earlier, reacting to the launch of the AICHR, the Philippine Government nominee Ambassador Rosario G. Manalo, said that “we are very happy today, this is a dream come true”.

Of the ten commissioners who will comprise AICHR, eight are government appointees. Only Indonesia and Thailand allowed human rights bodies to nominate representatives to the new commission.

Sinapan Samdorai is Convenor of the Task Force on ASEAN Migrant Workers in Singapre. His government refused to sanction his presence at the meeting. He told The Irrawaddy that “Singapore has adopted ASEANs lowest common denominator here, by aping the anti-democratic tactics used by the Burmese junta.”

After today’s tragi-comedy, any expectations that ASEAN use this summit to push the junta into some concessions on political prisoners or a review of the 2008 Constitution, seem far-fetched at this juncture.

Kraisak Choonhavan remarked that “to outsiders, it must seem that Burma is the most powerful country in ASEAN, able to dictate the agenda of meetings at will. Moreover, this allows other countries that do not want to respect rights or implement democracy hide behind this disturbing trend.”

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