2 August 2008

Human rights activists barred from ASEAN meeting

Jim Gomez, Associated Press, Cha-am, Thailand,Sat, 02/28/2009 8:34 PM

Prominent activists from military-ruled Myanmar and Cambodia were barred Saturday from a meeting with Southeast Asian leaders, upstaging the opening of a summit billed as a historic step toward greater human rights in the region.

The two activists were barred from a meeting on human rights in the region, after the leaders of Myanmar and Cambodia threatened to walk out if they attended. The activists had been selected by a regional human rights forum to act as delegates for their respective countries, along with activists from the other eight delegate nations.

Two hours later, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva officially opened the annual ASEAN summit with an address stressing that "ASEAN will put people first - in its vision, in its policies, and in its action plans."

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel called the incident "unfortunate," and human rights advocates said it again proved Myanmar would continue to hamstring the Association of Southeast Asian Nations if it remained a member of the bloc.

The meeting went ahead without the two 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.

As reporters swarmed around the ejected activists, organizers pumped loud music through the speakers to force the group outside, then beefed up security, telling the activists they needed permission to hold a news conference.

The incident clearly displeased the host organizers, but Abhisit did not directly address it. 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.

On Friday, delegates from the 10-member bloc 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 (Myanmar) 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.

While human rights became the hottest issue during two days of preliminary discussions, the two-day summit was intended to focus on how to overcome the global financial crisis and move forward on economic, political and security integration.

ASEAN was set to endorse an early warning system to defuse regional conflicts that could derail its goal of becoming a European Union-like community by 2015, according to a confidential document obtained by AP. The blueprint for peace in the highly diverse region where conflicts still erupt was to be adopted Sunday.

"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. It outlines a long wish list, ranging from fighting piracy, terrorism and cyber crime to promoting democracy and good governance.

But officials stressed that numerous stumbling blocks remain to true economic, political and security integration.

"The European Union has been and remains our inspiration, not our model. Not yet anyway," ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said.

He said that for the foreseeable future economic integration was largely about dropping trade barriers and that a common currency was probably "a long, long way off."