Sunday, March 1, 2009

Door closed for Cambodia, Myanmar reps

By Lilian Budianto

CHA-AM, THAILAND - The governments of Cambodia and Myanmar have banned two representatives from their own countries from meeting with Southeast Asian state leaders during the official meeting between ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and civil society organizations scheduled Saturday at Cha-am.

Cambodia has refused to let in Pen Somony, a program coordinator for the Cambodia Volunteers for Civil Society. The Myanmar junta has barred the door for Khin Ohmar, the Bangkok-based chair of the Network for Democracy and Development. The two will not be able to join their seven counterparts in the meeting, held as part of the 14th ASEAN Summit program.

The injunction from Cambodia came as a last-minute surprise. Country representatives voiced their objection only a day before the meeting though the list of representatives had been submitted to the ASEAN Secretariat last November, said Yuyun Wahyuningrum of the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, which represented Laos and Brunei.

Yuyun said they had anticipated the ban from military-ruled Myanmar but had not expected Cambodian to follow suit, especially since the latter did not specify any reason for a ban that could undercut freedom of expression in the region.

“The Cambodian [NGO] representative feels a bit threatened by the ban and fears returning to his country and has concerns for his safety. The Myanmar representative is based in Thailand and had expected the government’s ban because it frequently limits civil society voices this way,” she said.

She added only groups from eight of the 10 ASEAN countries had sent representatives to attend the 30-minute meeting, which included statement reading and a question-and-answer session.

“Laos did not participate because of concerns over government crackdowns on activists and Brunei Darussalam did not delegate a representative because it may not have any civil groups,” said Yuyun, who was delegated to represent the two absent countries.

She said the meeting – attended by the 10 ASEAN state leaders and the six representatives from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – ran smoothly despite the bans. Yuyun expressed regret afterward that only Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung answered the five questions put forward by the civil society leaders.

The Malaysian NGO representative, Wathshlah G. Naidu from Asia Pacific International Women’s Rights Action Watch, said their questions included public participation in the good governance process, representation on the ASEAN human rights body, migrant workers, the status of Burma (Myanmar) and gender issues.

“In response to the question on the ASEAN human rights body, they said they realized civil society leaders needed to be involved. They also recognized the [current bylaws] draft had no protective mechanisms. They affirmed that, in subsequent discussions, protections should be incorporated within the ASEAN human rights charter as part of its terms of reference,” Naidu said.

Naidu said further Abhisit had not responded directly on the issue of Burma but mentioned that ASEAN leaders would have an open discussion to address it. Yuyun added the Thai government had said they would ensure that political development in Burma would continue.

Yuyun also said the Vietnamese government had said it supported the participation of the civil society in community building but it should be within the scope of the ASEAN principle of noninterference.

“Prime Minister Abhisit agreed there is a deficit in the people’s participation in ASEAN forum that he wanted to improve. Hopefully, in the future, ASEAN is moving forward into a single society under the new charter,” she said, referring to the charter put into force last December.

“However, he emphasized that cooperation between civil society organizations and the ASEAN should be based on the principle of respect for national sovereignty and noninterference.”

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