NGOs want to participate in ASEAN rights decisions-Nation

March 6, 2009

Treat us as partners: civil-society groups
Kittipong Thavevong
The Nation: March 1, 2009

Representatives from the civil society yesterday strongly disapproved the exclusion of two activists from Burma and Cambodia for a historic meeting with Asean leaders.

The meeting was organised on the sidelines of the 14th Asean Summit here where regional leaders also met parliamentarians, youths and businesspeople from the grouping’s member states.

In the wake of this incident, Asean civil-society groups called on the grouping’s leaders to treat them as partners and institutionalise their interface to ensure full implementation of the people-oriented Asean Charter.

“The Asean peoples should be seen as partners – not obstacles – in the planned integration as enshrined in the Asean charter, with the people as the cornerstone,” said Prof Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University.

Thitinan, who served as a coordinator of the first dialogue, said at the outset of his briefing to the Asean leaders that their people have suffered a “participation deficit”. As a result, they were very enthusiastic in the week-long workshops, debating wide-ranging problems related to the three key pillars of the Asean community – security, economic and socio-cultural.

The Asean civil society, Thitinan added, expressed its gratitude to the Asean chair for the “unprecedented attention” to transform Asean into a more inclusive community. “The prime minister is very sincere and responsive,” Thitinan told The Nation.

Other representatives said the interface was constructive and they had positive exchanges.

Abhisit answered all questions posed by the Asean civil society and urged them to work together with the Asean governments.

The dialogue coordinator said he was surprised to hear very positive responses from Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet, who welcomed the idea of putting the interface between the leaders and civil society into the Asean framework. He said that there must be a guideline governing such relations as stated in the Asean Charter. Vietnam will succeed Thailand as the |Asean chairman next January.

During the informal exchange, Yuyun Wahyuningrum of Indonesia also managed to raise pertinent issues that affect 575 million Asean citizens.

She asked the leaders about the possibility of setting up an institutional mechanism such as an Asean Civil Society Advisory Council. The Indonesian human-rights activist said that representatives of women and youths should be part of the civil society representations at all levels.

On the issue of Burma, Yuyun quoted Aung San Suu Kyi’s oft-repeated quotation: “Use your liberty to improve our liberty”. She asked Asean leaders what immediate measures would be taken to stop ongoing human-rights violations, including the release of all political prisoners?

The last question focused on gender issues. She asked how the Asean leaders would like to address these issues and ensure its compliance with international human rights of substantive equality and non-discrimination.

After the informal interface, Abhisit and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya also met Burmese dissident, Khin Omar and Cambodian civil society representative, Pen Somony.

On Friday, both Cambodia and Burma threatened to boycott the dialogue if these persons attended. As a compromise, it was decided that Abhisit, as the Asean chair, would meet them separately.

Omar thanked the two leaders for their efforts to broaden the dialogue with the civil society while expressing concerns that her country was not fully committed to the Asean Charter.

Pen Somony, the Programme Coordinator of Cambodia Volunteers for Civil Society, told the Thai leaders to widen the space for the young peoples of Asean.

Meanwhile, Soe Aung, spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, said what had happened had raised doubts about the sincerity of certain Asean leaders in allowing civil society’s participation in the process of creating a people-centred Asean.

Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the Alternative Asean Network on Burma, said the Burmese and Cambodian leaders “sabotaged” the Asean leaders’ meeting with civil-society representatives.

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