Asean’s shameful silence over Thai rights crisis

Now, the world has changed, and it’s Myanmar’s turn to do the job.

Supalak Ganjanakhundee
The Nation May 18, 2016 1:00 am

No one in Southeast Asia should expect their civil rights to be protected by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Six years since it was launched, the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) has yet to take any action to safeguard the most basic freedoms of citizens it supposedly represents.

The Asean principle of non-interference has led to a reluctance to speak out against neighbours’ rights abuses, a shameful case in point furnished by junta-ruled Myanmar. Now, that shame is deepening thanks to the silence over Thailand’s deepening human rights crisis.

While the international community’s rising concern resulted in concrete recommendations for Thailand during the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Periodic Review in Geneva last week, representatives from Asean member countries were conspicuous by their silence, declining to make serious comment on the ongoing violation of civil and political rights in Thailand.

Indeed few expected any useful recommendations from the current chair of Asean, Laos, which has long been a stranger to international standards of civil and political rights.

The Lao delegation in Geneva instead recommended that Thailand empower women and ensure equal access to education for females, rural children and the disabled. The irony of those suggestions – coming just two years after male generals toppled a female prime minister and her government in Thailand – was obviously lost on the Vientiane officials.

Given that all governments in Asean are authoritarian, differing only in the degree of their control, their lack of serious comment on the violation of civil and political rights in Thailand came as no surprise. It would not be unusual for countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, et al to arrest the mother of a student activist on a charge of insulting the head of state just because she acknowledged a Facebook post. Those countries might have no lese majeste law, but their internal security and sedition acts are enforced in the same manner.

However, it was disappointing to see representatives of elected civilian governments in Indonesia, the Philippines and notably Myanmar, fall into step with their neighbours in Geneva. These three are supposedly among the more democratically progressive members of Asean and thus have a duty to set the tone on regional human right practice.

An Indonesian representative in Geneva cut corners by suggesting that Thai authorities strengthen the legal framework, support the national human rights body and maintain efforts to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

The Philippines followed suit by recommending Bangkok continue to provide resources and laws to protect women’s rights, and implement policies enunciated in the national human rights plan. It also urged Thailand to consider ratification of international instruments to protect migrant workers.

Even more disappointing was to see that Myanmar’s representative remained wedded to the ethos of the previous military regime. The message of openness and rights protections from the new government under democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi had seemingly not yet got through to the Geneva delegation. Instead they focused exclusively on the rights of the millions of Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand.

As foreign minister, Suu Kyi has the urgent task of mapping out a national agenda and employing her envoys around the globe to champion the resulting policies.

Thailand was once a beacon for human rights and democracy in Asean. Bangkok even saw fit occasionally to comment on rights violations in military-ruled Myanmar. Now, the world has changed, and it’s Myanmar’s turn to do the job.