As ASEAN Turns 50, Focus Turns To Region’s Shaky Civil Liberties Plight

Attention is increasingly turning to the region’s shaky civil liberties plight at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) even though economic integration has long been the focus of this group.

A group of experts shared their dreams for the bloc and human rights emerged as a common denominator at a World Economic Forum (WEF) discussion in Cambodia’s capital city on Wednesday, the organization’s first regional meeting in the country.

“Development can only be sustained when people are secure,” said Wai Wai Nu, a former political prisoner under Myanmar’s military government who is now founder and director of Women Peace Network. “My dream is for ASEAN is to become an inclusive society where all people in the region can enjoy freedom with respect to their human rights.”

Politicians running a clean government and inspire new generations to serve their citizens is one of the goals for William Tanuwijaya, co-founder and CEO of Indonesian e-commerce giant Tokopedia.

Meanwhile, leaders were urged to be open to criticism by AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes. “It’s no secret that a freer a country is, the more creative it is.”

Intergovernmental cooperation amongst its 10 members: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Lao, Myanmar and Vietnam, is promoted by ASEAN which was formed in August 1967.

Laws restricting freedom of expressions and the right to peaceful assembly are continued ot be imposed by several members as the bloc turns 50 this year.

The OECD estimates that ASEAN is expected to grow 5.1 percent annually through 2017-2021 and become the world’s fifth-largest economy by 2020 and such repressive policies have drawn stinging criticism from international non-profit groups who say the bloc must take human dignity as seriously as economic growth.

Especially in the aftermath of the unsolved murder of prominent anti-government critic Kem Lev in 2016, Cambodia, the host nation to WEF’s 2017 ASEAN meeting, is no stranger to such attacks. According to Human Rights Watch, under the 32-year rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, politically motivated persecutions of activists have been common.

His country was an open one, said Kao Kim Hourn, Minister attached to the Cambodian PM’s office.

“There’s a limit as to how much you can criticize without evidence…It’s a free society but yet, we have laws and if you play with the law, you’re going to get into problems.”

He continued that assumptions that his government was cracking down on critics wasn’t fair to say. “The government selectively chooses cases that affect the national interest. And those citizens go through a due process of law.”

ASEAN’s effectiveness has yet to be proven even while it does have an official body overseeing democratic rights.

Amnesty International described in a February report that lying dormant, “constricted by rules requiring consensus for any decision it makes, which has had a paralyzing effect on its actions,” is an entity known as the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

Recalling a time in Geneva when she was discussing the need to allow an international inquiry into widespread reports of Rohingya abuse in Myanmar, Wai Wai remarked that going forward, governments must be more open. “At the time, Indonesian ministers told me that if they supported the idea of a UN rapporteur to investigate Myanmar, there would be similar proposals in their country… Leadership in ASEAN must be honest about these matters.”

(Adapted from CNBC)

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