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 27 Feb 2009

14th Asean Summit:
Rights groups: Press Myanmar, protect refugees

Human rights groups on Thursday urged Southeast Asian leaders gathering for their annual summit to press Myanmar on its "dire human rights" record and improve treatment of refugees and migrants.

These issues should be a priority for the new human rights body that will be discussed at the summit taking place this weekend in Hua Hin, a royal seaside resort in Thailand, Reuters quoted the groups as saying.

"One of the challenges facing a future Asean human rights body is the dire human rights situation in Myanmar," London-based Amnesty International said. "Violations in this Asean member state have been going on for decades, and include crimes against humanity.

To be worthy of its name, the body must be empowered to effectively address human rights in Myanmar," Amnesty said. The 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar, says it tries to address democratic reforms and human rights issues in the former Burma under its policy of "constructive engagement" with the ruling junta.

But the group has had no mechanism for bringing the generals to heel and those issues are never on the formal agenda. Critics fear the new human rights body that will come into being under Asean’s landmark charter may not have much teeth either.

The Myanmar government last week set 24 political prisoners free, but more than 2,100 remain behind bars, the highest in more than 20 years, Amnesty said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan that the group should also strengthen protection for refugees and migrants.

"The recent forced return at sea of boats containing ethnic Rohingya refugees from Burma, leading to hundreds of deaths, was proof of the need for regional solutions to Southeast Asia's human rights problems," Human Rights Watch said.

Thailand came under harsh international criticism when hundreds of Rohingya migrants went missing after the Thai army towed them out to sea in rickety boats without engines.

" Asean ‘s continuing failure to hold the Burmese military government accountable for abuses and Asean ‘s unwillingness to provide refuge for those fleeing oppression in Burma are two sides of the same coin," Human Rights Watch said.

Thailand said the Rohingya issue would be discussed informally on the sidelines of the summit it is hosting. "If you ask officials to put it on the agenda, officials wouldn't dare," Asean Secretary General Surin said in remarks Wednesday night at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

"If they are talking informally over dinner, don't underestimate it, and don't just deny the possibility that it could become a decision by the ministers and by the leaders," he added, referring to Asean’s style of informal diplomacy.

The sidelines are, indeed, often more interesting than the highly scripted and anodyne Asean meetings. Myanmar's former foreign minister Nyan Win famously disclosed to Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo the junta would not take its turn as Asean chairman in the men's room during the 2005 Asean summit in Laos.

Thailand is hoping the meeting will be remembered for transforming the Asean "talk-shop" into a rules-based bloc that can compete with the likes of the European Union.

The leaders will formally implement the charter they signed in December that aims to turn the region of 570 million people with a combined GDP of $1.1 trillion into a legal entity that can boast of a common market by 2015.

"The EU has been and remains our inspiration, not our model -- not yet anyway," Surin said. Asean is also expected to make a stand against creeping protectionism, including in some of its own members.

"Asean ‘s stance is clear that we don't want to see any protection in the global trade," Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromyas told reporters on Thursday. "We want to push for the Doha round talks to restart soon. We want the world to continue to open up its trade although the global financial and economic crisis is hurting us."




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