CAMBODIAN and regional human rights groups have slammed the exclusion of five activists from a meeting with regional leaders at the 15th ASEAN summit on Friday, overshadowing the launch of the bloc’s long-awaited rights watchdog.
Leaders from the 10 ASEAN member states were set to hold rare talks with rights group representatives – one from each country – in the Thai resort town of Hua Hin on Friday morning, but the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Singapore barred activists from the meeting at the last minute.
Debbie Stothard, media coordinator of the independent ASEAN People’s Forum, which selected the delegates, said she was “shocked” by their exclusion, as the meeting had been in the pipeline since the February summit.
“There was an organised process of interactions with ASEAN governments” leading up to the meeting, she said.
“This is an outrageous development. It is a rejection of civil society and of the democratic process by which they were selected.”
The government’s exclusion of Ney Vannda, Cambodia’s representative and the advocacy chief of local rights group Adhoc, mirrored similar events at February’s ASEAN summit, when Cambodia joined the Myanmar military junta in blocking activists from attending a similar face-to-face meeting.
Adhoc president Thun Saray could not be reached for comment on Sunday, but Kek Pung, president of fellow rights organisation Licadho, said she was “disappointed” to hear activists were excluded from the meet, and that ASEAN had contradicted the spirit of its 2007 charter.
“ASEAN has just approved a charter saying it should have a human rights body, so I think it’s important that civil society should take part,” she said.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said he was unsurprised by the incident, but that he was “puzzled” the Cambodian government went to the effort of barring Ney Vannda from a routine meeting.
“There’s nothing for this government to lose by letting these people into the meeting. It’s not helping the government’s reputation or that of ASEAN,” he said.
Officials said the five activists were barred because they had not been approved by their governments in line with previous agreements.
“The foreign ministers of ASEAN have agreed that the only civil society organisations that had the right to attend the meeting with leaders of ASEAN were civil society groups sent by their governments to participate [in the summit],” Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters at Phnom Penh International Airport on Sunday.
Stothard, however, said that several government-selected “civil society” groups had enrolled in the ASEAN People’s Forum in order to wrest the nomination to appear at the meeting from independent groups.
“Civil society [organisations] should not be considered pets of government. Trying to replace us with mirror images of the government doesn’t make the problems go away,” she said.
Friday’s events came as ASEAN launched its Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, a body that has also come under fire for lacking the mandate to enforce rights standards.
Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at Singapore Management University, said the body was “a start” but fell “far short” of being a credible mechanism, and Stothard said only Indonesia and Thailand had held a transparent selection process for their delegates to the commission.
Sripapha Petcharamesree, the commissioner representing Thailand, did not wish to comment on the barring of the rights activists but said critics should take stock of ASEAN’s human rights achievements.
The commission “is far from perfect, but it is a milestone within ASEAN,” she said Sunday. “One of our duties is to make it better.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA AND AFP