One Step Forward, Two Steps Back – ISN

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Burmese delegate Khin Ohn Mar expresses disappointment at ASEAN leaders (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Burmese delegate Khin Ohn Mar expresses disappointment at ASEAN leaders (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

ASEAN’s new human rights commission is a tiger with no teeth and highlights the organization’s continuing unwillingness to confront member states who thumb their nose at democracy, writes Simon Roughneen for ISN Security Watch.

By Simon Roughneen in Hua Hin, Thailand for ISN Security Watch

As current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN), Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva formally launched the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) here in Hua Hin on 23 October.

However the AICHR is toothless. Apparently it work to promote the concept of human rights, but lacks any competence to sanction member states for human rights abuses, which Abhisit acknowledged in his launch speech. He said that $200,000 was available to fund the AICHR, but added 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 launch was overshadowed by a row between ‘civil society’ groups from the ASEAN member states, and the heads of government. At 11:30pm on last Thursday, Thai Foreign Ministry officials informed the delegates – elected at a meeting of the ASEAN People’s Forum 18-20 October – that the governments of Burma, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines had vetoed the NGOs chosen to meet the heads of government the following morning as part of the Summit proceedings in the resort city of Hua Hin.

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

The Burmese nominees included two former high-ranking police officials, now serving as members of the junta front organization called the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). The NGO delegates who could not access the meeting said that some ASEAN governments were not sincere about democratic reforms, which they have all signed up to under the ASEAN Charter, which aims to forge an ASEAN Community by 2015. The human rights body is part of this.

The problems with AICHR are not solely down to its mandate. Of the 10 commissioners selected to serve on the body, eight are government appointees. Only Indonesia and Thailand allowed human rights bodies to nominate representatives.

Of ASEAN’s 10 members, only Indonesia is regarded as a full democracy. The rest range from electoral democracies hindered by corruption or instability, such as the Philippines or Thailand, to authoritarian one-party states, such as Vietnam and most notoriously, Burma.

After the US announced its new policy initiative on Burma last month, eyes were on this ASEAN summit to see if the bloc would heighten pressure on the junta to release Aung San Suu Kyi and hold free and fair elections in 2010.
However ASEAN has backslid on this, failing to mention Suu Kyi in its final statement on the Summit, and giving Burma a mere two lines total.

The first ever US-ASEAN summit will take place in Singapore next month, and it appears that ASEAN’s typically soft policy on Burma will continue. The US is retaining sanctions on the Burmese junta, which ASEAN states disagree with, as many have lucrative commercial interests in Burma. However, the image is now that the US has come around to ASEAN’s viewpoint on Burma by agreeing to talk to the junta.

The US public relations effort has not sufficiently stressed the point that the US is not dropping sanctions. Together with US President Barack Obama’s refusal to meet the Dalai Lama when the Tibetan Buddhist leader was in the US recently, this is giving the impression that the US is not bothered about human rights in Asia.  The result is that ASEAN is off the hook on Burma

Simon Roughneen is an ISN Security Watch senior correspondent, currently in Southeast Asia. His website is

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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