25 Oct 2009

Walkout, absences mar Asean summit opening

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, fifth from left, link hands with ASEAN leaders during group shot before the ASEAN-Japan meeting at the 15th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, in Cha-am of Hua Hin district, south of Bangkok, Thailand, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009. From left to right, Laos Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh, Myanmar's Thein Sein, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo, Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong, Hatoyama, Thailand's Abhisit Vejjajiva, Vietnam's Nguyen Tan Dung, Malaysia's Najib Razak, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia's Hun Sen, and ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan. (AP Photo/Sukree Sukplang, Pool

CHA-AM, THAILAND, Philippines — Southeast Asian nations inaugurated a sharply criticized human rights commission Friday as tropical storms, domestic politics and VIP visits caused nearly half their leaders to miss the opening of their annual summit.
Representatives of civil society groups immediately blasted the commission and walked out of a meeting to protest being cold-shouldered by five governments, including the Philippines.
The annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) began inauspiciously when half the bloc’s 10 leaders failed to show up at the opening of the three-day conference.
The summit will also discuss how best to achieve economic integration by 2015.
The leaders of the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei did not arrive in time for the opening of the meeting.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was running late due to Typhoon “Ramil” (internationally called “Lupit”), the third storm in a month due to hit the Philippines, her spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo said.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is hosting a visit by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Indonesia is swearing in a new government and Malaysia’s government was presenting its budget to Parliament.
Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah didn’t show up amid reports that he was not feeling well.
A first in 42-year history
One of the first orders of business was the inauguration of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights which critics say will do little to deter human rights violators, like member Burma (Myanmar), because it imposes no punishments and focuses on promotion rather than protection of human rights.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva called the move “a significant milestone in the evolution of Asean.” It is the first human rights watchdog in the bloc’s 42-year history.
“The issue of human rights is not about condemnation but about awareness,” he said.
A shadow was immediately cast over the body when five Asean governments rejected members of civil society groups they had been scheduled to meet Friday, said Debbie Stothard of The Asean People’s Forum, an umbrella group of nongovernment organizations.
The governments of the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Singapore would not take part in what was to have been an Asean-Civil Society dialogue if the five activists from their countries were present, Stothard said.
Big shame
Instead, some of those countries flew in substitutes from so-called civil society organizations with Burma including a former senior police official, Stothard said.
When the meeting took place without the original civil society representatives, those from Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia walked out in protest.
“It is a big shame to our dreams for genuine democracy in the region. It’s like all of the human rights of the people in this region have been violated,” said Sister Crescenia L. Lucero, a Roman Catholic nun who was to have represented the Philippines at the dialogue.
“It does not bode well for the human rights commission. Asean has lost credibility,” Stothard said.
Work in progress
Asean officials respond that the commission is a work in progress and can be strengthened in the future.
They say that agreement on human rights standards is difficult within a grouping that includes two communist states, two kingdoms, a sultanate and military-ruled Burma.
Members of Asean have escalated their criticism of Burma. But the summit will again likely avoid confrontations and maintain that the group’s approach to engaging Burma works better than the West’s sanctions and threats.
The summit will also sign a declaration on climate change and discuss food security, bio-energy, disaster management and how trade barriers can be brought down to bring about a European Union-style grouping within the next six years.
The bloc will also meet with leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Massive security
Thailand has deployed more than 36,000 military and police both in Bangkok and to guard the summit at the beach resort of Cha-am, 200 kilometers south of the capital.
“Security forces have also set up emergency escape routes by land, air and sea,” Panitan said. “We don’t expect it to be necessary but we want to be ready and to assure leaders that they will be able to meet without distraction.”
The government is still smarting from the storming of the East Asian Summit in April in Pattaya, where protesters charged through thin police ranks and forced the evacuation of several leaders by helicopter and boat.
Security forces have also been empowered to impose curfews and restrict freedom of movement around Cha-am and Bangkok.
Legarda appeal
In Manila, Sen. Loren Legarda has urged Ms Arroyo to seek the deferment of the implementation of the Asean Trade in Goods Agreement (Atiga), saying it will wipe out all trade barriers for traded goods—including agricultural produce—in Asean states starting January 2010.
Legarda, chair of the Senate agriculture and food committee, said that Trade Secretary Peter Favila earlier signed the Atiga “without the knowledge of the Senate and media.”
With the Philippine rural folk reeling from the effects of back-to-back storms, Legarda asked whether it was for the government to allow imported agricultural goods such as rice and corn to enter the country zero-tariff and devastate millions of rural families. Reports from AP, AFP and Michael Lim Ubac in Manila

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