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South-East Asia

Economic crisis and human rights top agenda

Article published on the 2009-02-28 Latest update 2009-02-28 14:15 TU

The development of efficient buffers from the economic storm was at the top of the agenda for the leaders of the ten member-countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), taking place in Thailand this weekend. However, human rights issues in the region have made their mark.

Finding ways of riding the economic storm was supposed to be the main issue at the Association of South East Asian Nations summit in Hua Hin Thailand this weekend.

But human rights issues rose to a higher rank with discussions on Friday about setting up an Asean human rights body with a charter, and thanks to a row sparked by the positions of Myanmar and Cambodia.

Delegates and rights groups said that the premier of Myanmar's junta, Thein Sein, and his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen had refused to join the meeting with civil society representatives, if activists from their own countries were present.

Khin Omar from Myanmar and chair of the Network for Democracy and Development in Burma (Myanmar since 1989), was one of the two campaigners who was barred from the meeting.

In the end, Thailand's new Prime Minister and host, Abhisit Vejajjiva, did organise a separate meeting with the activists where they were able to air their concerns about human rights in their countries.

Khin Omar told RFI's Bak Thai Quoc at the meeting in Hua Hin that, "it's really frustrating, but ... knowing this Burmese regime's attitude, it was expected... But we hoped that the other leaders would have convinced this regime to listen to civil society for 30 minutes."

Asean has a core policy of non-interference in domestic affairs. The proposed rights body would maintain that and would have no powers to investigate or prosecute rights abusers. It would also stress the right to cultural diversity. 

Abhisit, in a speech at the opening of the summit, describied the proposed human rights body as "big step" towards protecting the fundamental freedoms of the region's 570 million people.

Asean's annual summit is also discussing how to deal with the effects of economic slow down. One member, Singapore, is experiencing its worst recession since independence.

The group hopes that the new free-trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand signed on Friday will help.