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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Door closed for Cambodia, Myanmar reps

The governments of Cambodia and Myanmar have banned two representatives from their own countries from meeting with Southeast Asian state leaders during the official meeting between ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and civil society organizations scheduled Saturday at Cha-am.

Cambodia has refused to let in Pen Somony, a program coordinator for the Cambodia Volunteers for Civil Society. The Myanmar junta has barred the door for Khin Ohmar, the Bangkok-based chair of the Network for Democracy and Development. The two will not be able to join their seven counterparts in the meeting, held as part of the 14th ASEAN Summit program.

The injunction from Cambodia came as a last-minute surprise. Country representatives voiced their objection only a day before the meeting though the list of representatives had been submitted to the ASEAN Secretariat last November, said Yuyun Wahyuningrum of the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, which represented Laos and Brunei.

Yuyun said they had anticipated the ban from military-ruled Myanmar but had not expected Cambodian to follow suit, especially since the latter did not specify any reason for a ban that could undercut freedom of expression in the region.

“The Cambodian [NGO] representative feels a bit threatened by the ban and fears returning to his country and has concerns for his safety. The Myanmar representative is based in Thailand and had expected the government’s ban because it frequently limits civil society voices this way,” she said.

She added only groups from eight of the 10 ASEAN countries had sent representatives to attend the 30-minute meeting, which included statement reading and a question-and-answer session.
“Laos did not participate because of concerns over government crackdowns on activists and Brunei Darussalam did not delegate a representative because it may not have any civil groups,” said Yuyun, who was delegated to represent the two absent countries.

She said the meeting – attended by the 10 ASEAN state leaders and the six representatives from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – ran smoothly despite the bans. Yuyun expressed regret afterward that only Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung answered the five questions put forward by the civil society leaders.

The Malaysian NGO representative, Wathshlah G. Naidu from Asia Pacific International Women’s Rights Action Watch, said their questions included public participation in the good governance process, representation on the ASEAN human rights body, migrant workers, the status of Burma (Myanmar) and gender issues.

“In response to the question on the ASEAN human rights body, they said they realized civil society leaders needed to be involved. They also recognized the [current bylaws] draft had no protective mechanisms. They affirmed that, in subsequent discussions, protections should be incorporated within the ASEAN human rights charter as part of its terms of reference,” Naidu said.

Naidu said further Abhisit had not responded directly on the issue of Burma but mentioned that ASEAN leaders would have an open discussion to address it. Yuyun added the Thai government had said they would ensure that political development in Burma would continue.

Yuyun also said the Vietnamese government had said it supported the participation of the civil society in community building but it should be within the scope of the ASEAN principle of noninterference.

“Prime Minister Abhisit agreed there is a deficit in the people’s participation in ASEAN forum that he wanted to improve. Hopefully, in the future, ASEAN is moving forward into a single society under the new charter,” she said, referring to the charter put into force last December.

“However, he emphasized that cooperation between civil society organizations and the ASEAN should be based on the principle of respect for national sovereignty and noninterference.”

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Barring of rights activists from ASEAN talks stirring anger

HUA HIN, Thailand -- Southeast Asian leaders were embroiled in a fresh row over human rights on Saturday after Myanmar's junta and Cambodia blocked activists from attending rare face-to-face talks.

Myanmar premier Thein Sein and his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen had refused to join the meeting with civil society representatives if activists from their countries were present, delegates and rights groups said.

The angry spat at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin threatened to overshadow the 10-member group's efforts to deal with the global financial crisis.

“I was disappointed but it was expected. The refusal by the Burmese regime clearly shows they are not committed to change,” one of the two barred activists, Khin Omar from Myanmar, told AFP after the meeting.

Myanmar's military regime changed the country's name from Burma in 1989. She said the move showed that a landmark ASEAN charter that came into force in December and calls for the establishment of a new regional human rights body “is just a cosmetic show”.

The meeting went ahead without Khin Omar and the other activist, Pen Somony of Cambodia, who instead both held a brief meeting with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Singapore-based civil rights activist Sinapan Samydorai, who was at the meeting, said that when one delegate raised the issue of the barred campaigners “I saw the face of the Cambodian and Burmese leaders change”.

There was also no representative from communist-ruled Laos because they feared possible repercussions at home, Samydorai said.

The meeting eventually covered topics including the rights body, migrant workers, Myanmar and gender, delegates said. There was no immediate comment by any of the ASEAN leaders who attended.

Human rights have been a perennial challenge for ASEAN in the 42 years since it was founded as a bulwark against the spread of communism. Its members now include a monarchy, a dictatorship and two communist states.

The bloc has repeatedly been pressed to use its influence to improve the rights situation in Myanmar but to little avail. Its soft approach contrasts with the sanctions imposed by Western nations.

A key problem has been the group's core policy of non-interference in domestic affairs, which has previously been used by nations like Myanmar to fend off criticism.

The policy has most recently been enshrined in a draft document seen by AFP on the proposed rights body, which in its current form has no powers to investigate or prosecute rights abusers.

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