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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Painting a smile on 'brand ASEAN'

By Charles McDermid and Jakkapun Kaewsangthong

HUA HIN, Thailand - At the same time that Southeast Asia's heads of state were atop a splashy stage entangled in their famous 10-member cross-body handshake, Cambodian activist Pen Somony was sitting on a curb outside the venue, surrounded by reporters, and fearing for his life.

At the same moment that Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's nine-car motorcade had stopped traffic to glide into the ultra-posh Sheraton Hua Hin Resort and Spa, Nayom Pai-Sri was across the street selling snacks and cigarettes from a tumbledown shack to try and feed his family.

Welcome to the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, where hard issues generally go unmentioned and poverty and human rights take a back seat to diplomatic platitudes, trappings of togetherness and lavish expressions of Asian statecraft.

This year was meant to be different. For months, officials had billed the meeting in the beach and golf resort of Hua Hin as a celebration of the dawn of a "new" ASEAN. This was the bloc's first gathering since ratifying the long-awaited ASEAN charter which came into force 10 weeks ago. The charter incorporated the group [1] as a legal entity and laid the foundation for a European Union-like community, without a common currency, by 2015.

More importantly, to fulfill the theme of this year's event - "ASEAN Charter for ASEAN People" - leaders had promised to prioritize and empower the bloc's some 570 million people - a stunningly diverse population larger than the European Union or the North American Free Trade Association.

"I will join hands with fellow ASEAN citizens across the region to make ASEAN a household name, not only for the people of Southeast Asia but for those beyond," said new Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose emergence as a dynamic regional leader may have been the ceremonial event's most significant storyline.

Led by Abhisit's youthful charisma, host Thailand pulled out all the stops. The summit's theme was "ASEAN Charter for ASEAN Peoples", and among the many accompaniments was a new flag, which depicts a bundle of ten rice stalks and the motto "One Vision, One Identity, One Community", and a comic book featuring a cute, blue alien who arrives from space to make friends from each Southeast Asia nation.

There was even the debut of an ASEAN theme song - The ASEAN Way - which includes the stirring lyrics, "Together for ASEAN, we dare to dream; We care to share, for it's the ASEAN way." The touchy-feely frenzy was enough to make Kavi Chongkittavorn laugh.

The veteran Thai journalist and former assistant to the secretary general of ASEAN from 1993-1994, has long been a strident critic of ASEAN's ineffective policies and at times questionable governance. (Kavi once reported Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as saying the only good thing about ASEAN summits was "golf, karaoke and durian".)

"ASEAN used to be a joke," Kavi told Asia Times Online. "In the old days they would get together because they had known each for 10 years and play golf and talk business. Now it's a different generation, and different language is being used to engage people. ASEAN is no longer a joke - the charter is the yardstick," he added.

In the past, ASEAN did little to counter criticism that the group was only an elite fraternity. As John Funston, a former senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, wrote, "To resolve differences between members - ASEAN relied less on formal institutions and treaties than on close personal ties at official, ministerial and head of government level – often cemented on the golf or post meeting entertainment sessions."

This reputation, along with ASEAN's non-intervention policy and strict adherence to consensus decision-making, has dogged the bloc for years. This year China, India, South Korea and Japan declined to attend after the event was postponed due to street violence in Bangkok. The United States has also become "frustrated" with the grouping's slow pace, according to Harry Harding, professor of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington.

"There is a backing away from the idea that everything regional must be ASEAN-led," Harding said during a presentation in January at Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Security and International Studies. He noted, for instance, that the Shanghai Cooperation Dialogue has a more effective dialogue mechanism for security issues than ASEAN because it brings together military people rather than foreign ministry folks - as ASEAN does.

‘Ogres' and activists
Even as Thailand scrambled to paint a smile on "brand ASEAN", old rivalries and nagging issues were thrust to the forefront. Some familiar faces were stirring up trouble.

Myanmar premier Thein Sein and Cambodia's Hun Sen broke ranks from their ASEAN counterparts on the summit's first day, threatening to storm out of a face-to-face forum with a multinational civil society coalition if activists from their own countries were allowed to take part. Once the delegates exited, the meeting proceeded.

Myanmar activist Khin Ohmar, last year's winner of Sweden's Anna Lindh human rights prize, and 29-year-old Pen Somony of the Cambodian Volunteers for Human Rights, had been selected by a regional human rights coalition to act as representatives from their native countries.

The move sent tremors through the ASEAN hierarchy, which had promised a new approach to human rights as a key issue on the summit's agenda. The stubborn line from two of the bloc's most authoritarian governments cast doubt on the willingness of old guard ASEAN leaders to commit to the people-oriented aspects of the new charter.

The aftermath of the threatened boycott, which resulted in a security scrum and an ad hoc curbside press conference, thrust ASEAN's controversial human-rights record back into the spotlight. In explanation for the move, Cambodia said it reserved the right to select its own civil society representative and Myanmar was apparently displeased with Ohmar's pro-democracy activities, according to rights activists and delegates.

"Hun Sen wanted to show that the civil society forum needed better preparation," said Kavi. "Hun Sen has a special place in ASEAN, as he is the longest reigning leader at the moment. The point he wanted to make was about non-governmental organizations, but it might have been better if he had kept quiet."

Earlier, delegates lauded the forthcoming establishment of a new ASEAN human-rights body, a landmark event in the group's 42-year history. But critics said the proposed body, expected to begin functioning later this year, would lack the teeth to punish violators such as Myanmar with expulsion or sanctions.

The event's organizer said the first-of-its-kind forum was still a success, and a blueprint for future government-civil society dialogue. "The event was tarnished. It would have been ideal to have all the civil society representatives," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"Still, this engagement between civil society and the leaders is unprecedented. Under the initiation of this chairmanship it has created a building block that can be built upon. To the extent that leaders listened, it was a positive outcome," he added.

The incident ensured that human rights would be the summit's hottest issue with the some 1,200 attending media. The only backlash may be that Myanmar, which has already been pressed hard on the issue of the ethnic Rohingya boat people, and Cambodia may have increased media scrutiny of their policies and human rights records.

During the summit Myanmar's foreign minister said his country might be willing to take back Rohingyas - but only if they were identified as Bengalis who reside in Myanmar and not as Myanmar citizens. This is in line with Myanmar's official policy which denies Rohingyas official status, including the right to move freely or marry without state permission. According to the BBC, a memo faxed to journalists by the Burmese consul in Hong Kong last week insisted Rohingyas could not be from Myanmar, as they were dark-skinned and "as ugly as ogres".

"[Myanmar] and Cambodia are trying to sabotage one of the most important ASEAN summits ever. We're disappointed, but not surprised," said Debbie Stothard with the rights group Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, who has been following ASEAN's human rights practices since 1988. "It's unbelievable that powerful, oppressive ASEAN governments can't bear to face their own people. Hopefully, they'll feel a deep sense of embarrassment," she added.

Thais in the middle
While this may be unlikely in Cambodia's Phnom Penh and the Myanmar capital of Naypyidaw, Thai leaders were aghast at the activists' treatment. After the incident became public, both activists held a brief meeting with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit. "We will take gradual steps and encourage a wider participation," he told reporters after the closed-door meeting.

Even before the meeting - Kavi called the high level of distrust between officials and their civil groups "an ugly scar on the ASEAN psyche". He credited Abhisit's willingness to meet with the delegates as keeping the summit from total collapse.

Cambodian activist Sonomy was visibly shaken by the ejection. Speaking softly in halting English and Khmer, he said he would let his colleagues speak for him as he was worried about possible repercussions once he returned home. "We hope that the Thai prime minister and ministry of foreign affairs will honor their commitments and that no harm will come to him," said Stothard.

Others lauded Abhisit's handling of the diplomatic flare-up. "I think [Abhisit] did a great job on two fronts. He articulated a stance on unity and used the example of the meeting held during the financial crisis in 1997." said Kavi. "Now he's emerged as a bright, young leader to the global community and in Thailand. He just wrote his reputation. I think Abhisit was able to capture a new spirit and create a new ASEAN."

Others were less enthusiastic, citing ASEAN's history of divisiveness and inactivity and claiming that competing outside forces - namely the US and China - will eventually pull the group apart. One attending analyst who declined to be named, told Asia Times Online, "ASEAN has chance to do so many great things, but won't. Their missed chances for cooperation are too numerous to mention down there. China will have them all like an anaconda before they notice."

Even Kavi, who is unmistakably bullish on ASEAN's direction, admits progress will be slow even as rhetoric is increasingly rosy. As he put it, the change has been "evolutionary, rather than revolutionary", as some ASEAN members and citizens may have liked.

"There was much more openness at this meeting. The leaders are more comfortable and the secretary-general has more power, including control of all ASEAN humanitarian efforts. Just 15 years ago he was neither a secretary nor a general," he said. "There has been lots of groundwork and guidelines put in place that still need to be fleshed out. Right now if you took a bite out of ASEAN, you would get a mouthful of bones."

Note
1. The 10 members of ASEAN are Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Charles McDermid is an Asia Times Online correspondent based in Thailand. Jakkapun Kaewsangthong is a Thailand-based journalist.
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UN Lawyer O'Brien Refuses Questions on Cambodia Tribunal, Ignores Logo Misuse

UNITED NATIONS, The UN's new top lawyer, asking Tuesday about the funding and corruption crisis at the UN-affiliated genocide tribunal in Cambodia, refused to answer any questions about it.

At a press conference at UN headquarters in New York, Patricia O'Brien purported to respond to twenty minutes of questions about the so-called Hariri Tribunal, concerning the deaths of some two dozen people in Lebanon. The Cambodia tribunal, already plagued by allegations that local Cambodian staff paid bribes to get their jobs, is threatened with closure according to its top judge due to a lack of funds.

As Inner City Press asked what the UN is going to do, Ms. O'Brien said she would not answer any questions on that or any other non-Hariri Tribunal topic. Inner City Press followed up, will there be another opportunity to ask these questions? I am not undertaking any further commitment of availability, Ms. O'Brien said.

Several comparisons came to mind. The Cambodia tribunal deals with more than a million deaths, while the Hariri Tribunal deals with two dozen. On the latter, however, the UN has good news, or thinks it does. Its corruption-plagued tribunal, the UN would apparently prefer just went away.

Of this UN-assisted tribunal, "a report surfaced last week on the German legislature's Web site alleging that a top U.N. tribunal official had acknowledged the kickbacks and accused a senior Cambodian administrator of corruption. The head of public affairs for the tribunal refused to comment on the report."

Ms. O'Brien's predecessor Nicolas Michel, while more focused on Lebanon than Cambodia, nevertheless answered questions about Cambodia. Ms. O'Brien, since being awarded the UN's top legal job, has rarely if ever been available to the media. She came to one press conference and left before taking any questions.

Two weeks ago, Inner City Press approached Ms. O'Brien in the hallway of the UN, after a ceremony in which she and two dozen other Under Secretaries-General signed "accountability" compacts with Ban Ki-moon. Inner City Press told Ms. O'Brien of recent instances of corporations publicly using and misusing the UN logo and name to promote their business. Previously, when Inner City Press had raised such cases to the UN Office of Legal Affairs, which Ms. O'Brien now heads, some actions had been taken. Ms. O'Brien instructed Inner City Press to proceed as it had in the past.

Inner City Press e-mailed to Ms. O'Brien, at her UN-listed address, a half-dozen examples of corporate use of the UN logo. Having no response, Inner City Press sent the examples again, on the eve of Tuesday's press conference. Still no response, until the terse statement that only Hariri Tribunal questions about be entertained, and no other Q&A opportunity was envisioned.

The UN is ostensibly a public organization; in any event, Ms. O'Brien's salary is paid by taxpayers all over the world. While Ban's UN talks about accountability and transparency, even its top lawyer appears to resist or oppose both. We will have more on this.

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Cambodia to host ASEAN-U.S. military exercise in 2010

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia will host a large-scale ASEAN-U.S. military exercise in 2010, Khmer-language newspaper the Deum Ampil said on Tuesday.

"It is an honor for Cambodia to be chosen by ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and superpower U.S. as the location for such a large-scale international military exercise," Pol Saroeurn, Commander-in-Chief of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), told the paper.

"We will take efforts to make it a success," he said, adding that he will also instruct all his subordinates to be careful with the work.

The Sihanoukville port will be used as the maritime location ofthis military haul, the paper also quoted a governmental official as saying on condition of anonymity.

Cambodia once joined international military exercises respectively in Bangladesh and Mongolia and also sent peacekeepers to Sudan for de-mining operation under the U.N. umbrella.

In April 2008, 40 Cambodian soldiers participated in a three-week multi-national peace-keeping exercise in Bangladesh.

The U.S.-led mission was named "Ambassador of Peace" and involved some 400 soldiers from 12 countries, including Bangladesh,India, Indonesia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Nepal, Brunei,Mongolia, Tonga, Cambodia and U.S.

In July 2007, 43 Cambodian soldiers took part in a military exercise for UN peacekeeping mission in Mongolia.

In addition, Cambodia sent 135 deminers to Sudan in 2006 for UN peacekeeping mission, and then 139 in June 2007 to replace the oldones. The deminers were renewed again in 2008.
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Cambodia KRouge defence warned over website

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — The defence team of a Khmer Rouge leader has been ordered to remove confidential documents from Cambodia's UN-backed war crimes court from a website, the tribunal's investigating judges said Tuesday.

Lawyers for former foreign minister Ieng Sary "face sanctions" if they do not remove all documents relating to judicial investigations within 48 hours, the court's co-investigating judges said in a press statement.

Ieng Sary, 83, is one of five leaders from the late 1970s regime charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, but details of the investigation ahead of his trial are kept confidential.

Investigating judges said they needed "to guarantee the protection of privacy of those persons mentioned in the case file and the presumption of innocence, as well as to promote efficiency in investigations."

But the website containing defence filings and letters has also posted a letter to court officials saying that no documents on the site relate to the current investigation of Ieng Sary.

The letter by defence lawyers Michael Karnavas and Ang Udom goes on to allege that judges suppress filings "which may be embarrassing or which call into question the legitimacy and judiciousness of acts and decisions."

Ieng Sary has been rushed to hospital nine times since he was detained by the court in November 2007, and last week had an appeal for release from the Khmer Rouge court delayed after he said he was too ill to appear in court.

As the top Khmer Rouge diplomat, Ieng Sary was frequently the only point of contact between Cambodia's secretive communist rulers and the outside world.

He has denied any involvement in atrocities but he was one of the biggest public supporters of the regime's mass purges, researchers say.

Up to two million people died of starvation and overwork, or were executed, as the 1975-1979 regime emptied Cambodia's cities in its drive to create a communist utopia.

The long-awaited first Khmer Rouge trial started last month when the regime's notorious prison chief, Kaing Guek Eav, better known by the alias Duch, went before the court.

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Cambodia to host ASEAN-U.S. military exercise in 2010

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia will host a large-scale ASEAN-U.S. military exercise in 2010, Khmer-language newspaper the Deum Ampil said on Tuesday.

"It is an honor for Cambodia to be chosen by ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and superpower U.S. as the location for such a large-scale international military exercise," Pol Saroeurn, Commander-in-Chief of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), told the paper.

"We will take efforts to make it a success," he said, adding that he will also instruct all his subordinates to be careful with the work.

The Sihanoukville port will be used as the maritime location ofthis military haul, the paper also quoted a governmental official as saying on condition of anonymity.

Cambodia once joined international military exercises respectively in Bangladesh and Mongolia and also sent peacekeepers to Sudan for de-mining operation under the U.N. umbrella.

In April 2008, 40 Cambodian soldiers participated in a three-week multi-national peace-keeping exercise in Bangladesh.

The U.S.-led mission was named "Ambassador of Peace" and involved some 400 soldiers from 12 countries, including Bangladesh,India, Indonesia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Nepal, Brunei,Mongolia, Tonga, Cambodia and U.S.

In July 2007, 43 Cambodian soldiers took part in a military exercise for UN peacekeeping mission in Mongolia.

In addition, Cambodia sent 135 deminers to Sudan in 2006 for UN peacekeeping mission, and then 139 in June 2007 to replace the oldones. The deminers were renewed again in 2008.
Read more!