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Activists call for human rights debate at ASEAN summit

March 16, 2018

Southeast Asian leaders are gathering for the first ASEAN summit in Australia. But rights groups are calling on Canberra to talk about more than just economics at the Sydney meeting.

Cambodia's Hun Sen and Australia's Malcom Turnbull
Image: Reuters/D. Gray

Leaders of the 10 member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) started gathering in the eastern Australian city of Sydney on Friday for a weekend summit focused on security and prosperity.

Australia is hosting the special ASEAN meeting despite not being a member of the bloc, reflecting the country's objective of deepening political and trade ties in the region in the face of rising Chinese influence and apparent declining US interest.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has, however, come under criticism for inviting some controversial regional leaders to his hometown, including Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, has been vehemently condemned by human rights activists for failing to take action amid a military crackdown on her country's minority Rohingya Muslims. Amnesty International has accused ASEAN of being "shamefully silent" about the crackdown.

Rohingya refugees
Thousands of Rohingya have fled the crackdown in Rakhine stateImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Armangue

'I will beat you right there'

The Cambodian leader is under fire for multiple abuses of power, including violently repressing protest and jailing political opponents. Hun Sen has reacted aggressively to such criticism, threatening to hunt down and beat anyone who protests against him in Sydney.

"I will follow you all the way to your doorstep and beat you right there ... I can use violence against you," he said.

Read more: Cambodian politics - opposing PM Hun Sen from afar

Protests are nonetheless planned against both leaders, and rights groups have called on Turnbull to raise the issue of human rights at the meeting.

"Australia's failure to publicly raise human rights concerns at the summit would not only provide a propaganda coup to ASEAN's most abusive leaders: it would embolden all the region's leaders contemplating major crackdowns, jailing journalists, or dismantling democratic institutions," Human Rights Watch's Australian director Elaine Pearson said in a statement.

Another controversial figure, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose crackdown on illegal drugs has led to thousands of deaths, is expected to stay away from the summit as the only leader of the 10 ASEAN member nations not to attend.

Despite the summit's focus on economy and security, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she would raise human rights concerns with the Myanmar and Cambodian leaders.

Read more: EU-Philippines economic cooperation — what about rights violations?

'A dead end'

Ahead of the meeting, however, the Australian and Singapore leaders stuck to economic topics in their remarks.

Both spoke out against protectionism, with their comments coming as a trade war looms over US President Donald Trump's plans to raise tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, as well as on China's technology sector.

"You don't grow stronger by closing the door to other markets. Protectionism is a dead end. It is not a ladder to get you out of the low-growth trap; it is a shovel to dig it much deeper," Turnbull said.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee HsienLee, who is this year's ASEAN chairman, said that despite a global mood that seemed to be heading in the opposite direction, ASEAN was working to deepen interdependence and open up markets.

The summit ends on Sunday. The 10 ASEAN member nations are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

tj/ng (Reuters, AP)

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