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Civic Activists: ASEAN Ignoring Peoples' Concerns

Jerald Joseph left speaks at a briefing on the upcoming ASEAN peoples' forum while Sunsanee Sutthisunsanee, right, listens, April 2, 2015. (Steve Herman/VOA News)

Jerald Joseph left speaks at a briefing on the upcoming ASEAN peoples' forum while Sunsanee Sutthisunsanee, right, listens, April 2, 2015. (Steve Herman/VOA News)

Civic organizations in Southeast Asia are expressing increasing concern their voices are being ignored by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), even though the current chair, Malaysia, has vowed to realize a “people-centered ASEAN.”

When ASEAN holds its 26th Summit later this month in Kuala Lumpur, the association's civil society conference and peoples' forum will jointly issue a stinging rebuke.

They will tell the leaders that recommendations submitted annually since 2005 by civil society “have been neither implemented nor adopted in any meaningful way.”

They say this is because ASEAN “prioritizes corporate interests and elite groups, including state-owned enterprises, over the interests of the people.”

The four-day summit will be held in Malaysia's capital from April 24.

Ahead of the meeting more than 100 people, including prominent journalists, have been arrested on sedition charges since February.

Malaysian activist Jerald Joseph is the ASEAN People's Forum steering committee chairman. He said Prime Minister Najib Razak has to answer one fundamental question as the host of the ASEAN conference.

“How can you be a chair[man] and you allow the very fabric of your society to spiral downwards in the fashion it is now? And I think this is against the charter principles of basic respect for fundamental freedoms, rights, which is in the ASEAN charter,” said Joseph.

ASEAN leaders' summits are known as tame affairs as the body abides by a policy of non-intervention in its member states.

But ASEAN's civil society meetings on the sidelines are less hesitant to bluntly address burning issues, such as rights violations.

This month they are specifically to confront Laos with the issue of the enforced disappearance of prominent activist Sombath Somphone.

They want all ASEAN states to confront environmental concerns about construction of dams along the Mekong river and widespread abuse of migrants and refugees in the region, among other issues.

Thailand, under control of a military-led junta since last May, will also be in the spotlight.

A nearly ten-month period under martial law ended Wednesday but the prime minister and junta chief, Prayuth Chan-ocha, immediately granted himself and military officers broad powers through a sweeping new security order.

Rights of expression and assembly were curtailed under martial law. Thai activists find themselves wondering just what they can now say and do.

Speaking at a media briefing in Bangkok Thursday, Sunsanee Sutthisunsanee, a Thai representative to the ASEAN peoples' forum, said Thailand's human rights activists will take prime minister Prayuth at his word that he does not intend to abuse his unchecked powers.

“Our prime minister said that if you don't do something wrong why you worry about it? We don't do something wrong, why do something right. So I think we will continue [to raise human rights concerns],” said Susanee.

The international group Human Rights Watch called the junta's decision to invoke Article 44 of the interim charter an action that marks “Thailand's deepening descent into dictatorship."

ASEAN civic groups also desire Myanmar to continue to be under scrutiny amid violent crackdowns on students and escalating hostilities against ethnic groups.

Delegates to the peoples' forum say that as ASEAN moves towards its goal of regional economic integration, too many of its members continue to suppress human rights and engage in regressive politics.