Asean: an economic titan but a political worm

Amnesty wants action to avoid a repeat of this year’s refugee crisis. Source: Amnesty International

 While the economic prospects for the vast bulk of the 600 million Asean residents are looking up, the region’s news agenda remains dominated by political disputes, human rights abuses and attempts to prevent the domestic media from reporting on them.

Most Asean residents have never had it so good but it seems in most of the 10 member states this only applies if citizens are content to stay out of politics, with the international community shining a bright spotlight on the many human-rights abuses.

Amnesty International is calling on Asean leaders to prioritise the creation of a coordinated plan to help the thousands of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh who are forced to risk abuse and death at sea.

It says Asean’s focus on economic development fails to take account of the refugee crisis and a clampdown on political freedoms across the region.

“The global refugee crisis erupted in Southeast Asia in May this year, when thousands of people from Myanmar and Bangladesh were stranded in rickety boats, pushed back from safety on shore, trafficked into forced labour, or killed at sea. Asean has an important chance at this week’s summit to agree on urgent action to prevent this tragedy from happening again,” says Champa Patel, Amnesty’s regional director.

“In particular Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand must put in place strong domestic asylum systems, in line with their obligations. Customary international law is clear – people have the right to seek asylum, to have their requests fairly considered and not to be returned to a risk of torture or persecution.”

Patel called on all of Asean to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention to prevent a repeat of the sickening scenes next year.

Amnesty also turned on Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia for their alleged failure to protect freedom of expression.

Malaysia’s colonial-era Sedition Act has been used to investigate, charge or imprison hundreds who have criticised the government or the monarchy.

They include opposition politicians, human rights defenders, academics, journalists and lawyers.

Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, also known as “Zunar,” is facing nine charges under the Sedition Act for tweets critical of the judiciary.

In Thailand, freedom of speech was being drastically curtailed under the military junta that took power last May, the NGO says.

Arbitrarily imprisonment, routine denial of bail and unfair trials in military courts, sometimes without the right to appeal, are common, Amnesty reports.

It announced: “Authorities are using laws on lèse-majesté [insulting the monarchy] and treason to imprison scores of people for peaceful acts of self-expression. Human rights defenders continue to face censorship, enforced disappearances and violent attacks. For example, activist Sombath Boongamanong is among those facing military trial, for his criticism of the May 2014 coup.”

While historic elections took place in Myanmar on November 8, imprisonment for peaceful dissent during the past year has risen.

Citizens have been imprisoned for Facebook posts, protesting against the seizure of their land or for demanding educational reform.

“One of them is Phyoe Phyoe Aung, secretary general of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, who has been in prison along with scores of other students and protesters since March 10, after being violently arrested during a student protest against the newly adopted National Education Law.”

Vietnam’s suppression of peaceful, social and religious activism also drew Amnesty’s ire.

Activists failed regular harassment, surveillance, restrictions on their movement, arbitrary detention, prosecution and imprisonment and physical attacks.

“Blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh and his colleague Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy remain in pre-trial detention since their arrest in May 2014, in connection with their blogs critical of government policies and officials,” Amnesty said.

In Indonesia, at least 264 Papuan political activists were arrested in May for peaceful protests during President Joko Widodo’s visit to the province. Some prisoners were allegedly arrested for waving pro-independence flags.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, reinforces the image of a region incapable of establishing a political culture to match its economic strength.

The Thai academic writes: “Asean has developed so-called scorecards for three categories of community: economic, socio-cultural and political-security. Reportedly, the bloc gets a score of 92 per cent as an economic community and 82 per cent as a socio-cultural community.

“However, it only earns a rating of 12 per cent on political and security issues. Clearly, the Asean Political-Security Community (APSC) represents a major hurdle in the community-building process.”

“There are two critical issues that could obstruct APSC’s progress. First is the territorial conflict in the South China Sea. Second is the crisis over democracy in the region, as attested by the Thai military coup in 2014, which threatens to damage Asean’s democratic agenda,” the academic says.

He argues that pressure needs to be put on each government to reform but acknowledges that each state struggles to speak out for fear of being criticised itself.

“Asean’s inability to deal with contentious issues in the political and security realm derives from the lack of a realistic mission goal; and to a great extent, Asean’s own leadership is responsible for this.”

He is critical of the disjointed approach to the South China Sea crisis, contrasting the more combative stance of Vietnam and the Philippines with the passive response from Brunei and Malaysia.

Pavin says: “So far, Asean’s democratic agenda has been constrained by many factors, including its rule of non-interference and its weakness in the area of compliance and political commitment among its member nations.

“Asean states are politically vulnerable to various degrees. Members tend not to criticise others for fear that they could be criticised, too. While democratization thrives elsewhere, in Southeast Asia some states have resisted the democratization wave. This has put Asean in a rather awkward position. While it has striven to reinvent itself as a champion of democracy, this endeavour has been compromised by the narrow political interests of individual members. As a result, Asean struggles right from the start in performing the role of a ‘promoter’ of democracy.

“Asean could encourage its more-developed members, like Indonesia, to help consolidate democracy in some of the other member states, through, for example, offering advice on strengthening of the party system, the role of the parliament, security sector reform, legal reform and the active role of the media and civil society organizations. Instead of addressing human rights violations and electoral failures, the stronger democracies could work on crafting country-specific strategies and agendas to ensure suitability for each case,” the academic argues.

Cambodia’s increasingly fractious political situation reinforces Pavin’s critique.

The crisis is pushing the country towards a “dangerous tipping point”, according to the UN rights envoy to Cambodia.

Crisis hit when an arrest warrant was issued for Sam Rainsy, Cambodia’s most prominent opposition leader.

He has since accused Prime Minister Hun Sen of trying to destroy the opposition movement.

Rhona Smith, the UN’s human rights rapporteur for Cambodia, says the political conflict has been accompanied by a surge in rights abuses, including “incidences of violence, intimidation of individuals and resort to offensive language in the political discourse”.

“Any intensification of current events could bring Cambodia to a dangerous tipping point,” she warns.

“It is of great concern to me that there are multiple alleged violations of peaceful exercise of freedoms of opinion and expression, as well as the right to participate in political life.”

Rainsy, who already faces a two-year jail term if he returns to Cambodia, was charged last week with being “an accomplice” in making a document about the disputed border with Vietnam.

He cancelled a return to Cambodia last week after being stripped of his parliamentary immunity and is in self-imposed exile in Europe. He has been summoned to appear in court on December 4.

With so many problems facing the 10 leaders, it becomes clear why they were so keen to focus on the Asean Economic Community and the threat of Islamist militancy during their summits in Kuala Lumpur.

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