Anger as rights activists barred from ASEAN talks

Southeast Asian leaders were embroiled in a fresh row over human rights on Saturday after Myanmar's junta and Cambodia blocked activists from attending rare face-to-face talks.
Myanmar premier Thein Sein and his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen had refused to join the meeting with civil society representatives if activists from their countries were present, delegates and rights groups said.

The angry spat at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin threatened to overshadow the 10-member group's efforts to deal with the global financial crisis.
"I was disappointed but it was expected. The refusal by the Burmese regime clearly shows they are not committed to change," one of the two barred activists, Khin Omar from Myanmar, told AFP after the meeting.
Myanmar's military regime changed the country's name from Burma in 1989.
She said the move showed that a landmark ASEAN charter that came into force in December and calls for the establishment of a new regional human rights body "is just a cosmetic show".
The meeting went ahead without Khin Omar and the other activist, Pen Somony of Cambodia, who instead both held a brief meeting with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Singapore-based civil rights activist Sinapan Samydorai, who was at the meeting, said that when one delegate raised the issue of the barred campaigners "I saw the face of the Cambodian and Burmese leaders change".
There was also no representative from communist-ruled Laos because they feared possible repercussions at home, Samydorai said.
The meeting eventually covered topics including the rights body, migrant workers, Myanmar and gender, delegates said. There was no immediate comment by any of the ASEAN leaders who attended.
Human rights have been a perennial challenge for ASEAN in the 42 years since it was founded as a bulwark against the spread of communism. Its members now include a monarchy, a dictatorship and two communist states.
The bloc has repeatedly been pressed to use its influence to improve the rights situation in Myanmar but to little avail. Its soft approach contrasts with the sanctions imposed by Western nations.
A key problem has been the group's core policy of non-interference in domestic affairs, which has previously been used by nations like Myanmar to fend off criticism.
The policy has most recently been enshrined in a draft document seen by AFP on the proposed rights body, which in its current form has no powers to investigate or prosecute rights abusers.
The draft is also packed with provisions rejecting external interference and stressing cultural diversity.
Thailand's Abhisit defended the rights body, however, saying in a speech at the formal opening of the summit that it was a "big step" towards protecting the fundamental freedoms of the region's 570 million people.
He also sought to focus on economic issues, saying Southeast Asia must pull together to survive the "adverse impact of the global financial crisis".
ASEAN's export-driven economies have begun to feel the effects of the crunch, with Singapore facing its worst recession since independence and Thailand also facing difficulties.
The group signed a free trade deal with Australia and New Zealand on Friday and on Sunday leaders are expected to sign a declaration on becoming a European Union-style community by 2015 and a statement on tackling the economic crisis.
They will also sign an energy agreement to allow members to buy oil at a discount during times of economic difficulty.
The global financial crisis has overshadowed this year's summit and Abhisit warned that the region faces a struggle to survive the downturn.
"ASEAN is at the frontier of an economic battle and recovery. We will be severely tested from now on, both as a group and as a part of the broader Asian region," Abhisit told fellow leaders.

Saturday, February 28th 2009
M. Jegathesan

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