HO CHI MINH CITY – Much of the recent ASEAN summit was focused on political snubbing between Donald Trump and the region, an Asian trade agreement, and the South China Sea dispute, but one topic was not a priority: human rights.
So says the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights organization, (APHR) which lamented the rise of authoritarianism in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It named and shamed Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of Muslim Rohingya, the Philippines’ killing of innocents in its drug war, Thailand’s military grip on power, and Cambodia’s elimination of opposition parties. The organization said it has long called for human rights discussions at the annual summit, but heads of state didn’t heed the call at the most recent summit that ended Monday in Bangkok.
“Regardless of the well-meaning intentions that some of the region’s leaders may have, ASEAN does not provide even an inch of space for meaningful dialogue on human rights abuses against its own citizens,” Charles Santiago, a parliamentarian from Malaysia and the APHR chair, said.
Even though most Southeast Asian nations hold elections in theory, their leaders have made it harder for citizens to express differing opinions in recent years, by cracking down on political opponents, activists, and media.
The populist move away from liberal democracy is apparent around the world, resulting in strongman leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and India’s Narendra Modi. In Southeast Asia the trend has manifested in the form of weakened discourse, as it becomes fatal for citizens to criticize their own leaders and other elites.
Not the EU
ASEAN has 10 member states and is sometimes compared to the European Union for amalgamating many diverse nations into one organization. However Southeast Asia has deliberately focused on the low hanging fruit of cooperating on easier subjects, such as decreasing tariffs to increase trade. It has avoided difficult political and geopolitical subjects, from coming together against China’s claims in the South China Sea, to criticizing one another’s human rights records for fear of inviting criticism on oneself.
For Southeast Asia to become more like the European Union was always a pipe dream, but looks even more so now that Britain has voted to leave the EU and the rest of the union fights to convince others that they should not isolate themselves from the world.
However APHR stressed the need for unity and warned that staying away from difficult issues such as human rights could put ASEAN at risk of coming apart.
“Supporting authoritarian regimes that are suppressing the rights and freedoms of their people will not lead us to the long term peace and prosperity which ASEAN hopes to achieve,” Kasit Piromya, a former parliamentarian from Thailand and an APHR board member, said.
Although civil society organizations did gather after the ASEAN summit to discuss human rights, it was not a key talking point for government officials.
APHR highlighted how Southeast Asia, as in Poland and Hungary, has used the law to weaken public discourse. Cambodia, for instance, used to be a multi-party democracy with an active media. However the government has arrested 50 opposition party members and forced confessions on them, APHR said. It said Thailand’s military junta has used judicial harassment to bring court cases against opposition parliamentarians and made normal public debate illegal. Thailand too used to be a vibrant democracy where citizens were not afraid to protest and challenge the elites.