HUMAN rights have long been a sensitive issue among the states making up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). It remains one of the biggest challenges that member-countries need to confront even after its 10-year-old Charter has recognized the principles of human rights.
Asean celebrates this week the golden anniversary of its founding in August 1967 with only five members—Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. The regional grouping has since grown to 10 countries, with the accession of Brunei Darussalam in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Myanmar and Laos in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999.
With the adoption of the Asean Charter in 2007 and the establishment of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, the bloc has definitely progressed in response to the challenges of global competition. It is moving toward forming a competitive single market and production base, with free flow of goods, services, labor, investments and capital across the member states.
We have seen tremendous developments in tourism, trade, education, and cultural exchanges across the region in the past decade. This is the reason for the adoption of the K to 12 curriculum and the adjustment in the calendar of colleges and universities, starting the academic year in August instead of June.
However, the member-countries have been keeping the old non-interference policy on political issues particularly about human rights and civil liberties such as press freedom.
When I was still assigned to the political beats, I covered some of the Asean summits here and in other countries, and in those years, joint statements issued at the conclusion avoided controversial issues such as human rights and territorial disputes. On that score, Asean has not really moved away from being a social club, too cautious to call out another member on such issues as human rights abuse, or abuse of a fellow member by a trading partner.
In the Asean summits in Vietnam in 1998 and in Brunei Darussalam in 2001 that I covered, and in the years that followed, Myanmar’s human rights record was quite well-publicized but the bloc has fallen short of tackling the issue, except by coming up with a general statement expressing concern over the abuses committed against minorities.
Myanmar’s human rights record continues to be under scrutiny, particularly with the recent deaths, and displacement of more than 400,000 Rohingyas in the Rakhine state as a result of a crackdown by the military. The crackdown was an offshoot of the August 25 attack on security outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant Muslim group with reported links to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The Philippines is likewise facing strong criticisms on human rights because of the thousands of deaths in the Duterte administration’s aggressive war on drugs.
The problem with illegal drugs or narcotics is common among the Asean countries, and China has often been cited as the primary source. However, these countries, which are mostly dependent on China for investments, loans and imports, could barely afford antagonize their “benefactor” on such issues.
The Philippine director of Amnesty International has issued a statement urging US President Donald Trump to bring up the topic of human rights in his meeting with Duterte in the next couple of days.
The US is not a member of Asean but Trump will be in Manila as a special guest in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the bloc’s founding and to attend the East Asia Summit that will immediately follow the Asean leaders’ meeting.
Why AI is pinning its hopes on Trump, who has been trying to talk tough with foreign leaders, is apparently because it is aware that Asean will not take a stand as a bloc to call out Duterte on the killings of civilians suspected of involvement in the illegal drug trade.
It is also unlikely that Asean will come up with a statement asking President Xi Jinping of China to respect and abide by the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that its sovereignty claims over parts of the South China Sea had no legal basis.
These two issues involving human rights abuses and China’s assertive and aggressive positioning in parts of the South China Sea region that is also being claimed by the Philippines are challenges that could test Asean’s maturity in dealing with problems confronting member-states.
It is time for Asean to speak up and show its collective strength in condemning abuses and taking action against erring governments and, at the same time, demonstrating its cooperation against an aggressor like China over the disputed territories.
Asean is now in a position to prove its worth as a powerful regional bloc not only in economic, social, and cultural issues but in politics as well. As the old adage goes, in unity lies strength.