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Southeast Asian Rights Groups Call for Better Dialogue With ASEAN Leaders

Southeast Asian Rights Groups Call for Better Dialogue With ASEAN Leaders
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Civil society groups in Southeast Asia are calling on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for full implementation of human rights and other reforms. The call was being made ahead of an ASEAN summit to be held in Thailand later this month.

Civil society groups made the call Friday for consultations with regional governments so more social and economic issues can be addressed when ASEAN leaders meet in Thailand later this month.

Debbie Stothardt, spokeswoman for the Alternative ASEAN Network, says there is a need to have "substantive dialogue and engagement" with ASEAN leaders on regional issues.

"Not just in terms of meeting the heads of government every year for a few minutes but in terms of talking 'nuts and bolts' with senior officials," she said. "The people want to engage not just in a ritual or ceremonial way but actually in a substantive way where we get to talk about the various policies that affect our daily lives."

The role of civil society groups took a major step forward following ASEAN meetings earlier this year.

Under the reforms, civil society groups now have the opportunity to hold talks with selected countries.

In the July meetings several groups held talks with leaders, including Thailand, to raise issues of rights abuses in Burma. A rights charter has also been adopted by all 10 members promoting a so-called "people-centered ASEAN".

But groups say they are pessimistic about the effectiveness of reforms, that include adoption of a human rights charter and the setting up of a rights commission to oversee issues of abuses in Southeast Asia.

Yap Swee Seng, a representative with rights group Forum Asia, raised doubts the commission will be fully independent because it could be funded and controlled within the ASEAN Secretariat.

"If you do not have independent experts sitting in the commission and instead you have government officials sitting in the commission how is the commission going to hold ASEAN member states accountable to human rights? So it really runs to the core question of how independent it can be unless you have independent experts that can speak without fear and favor," he said.

Other issues rights groups want to raise with leaders include the impact of climate change on communities and the effect investment projects would have in Burma and other countries.

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Khin Ohmar, a member of the Forum for Democracy in Burma, says ASEAN needs to press Burma to talk with the democratic opposition and ethnic nationalities about the release of political prisoners and a halt to human rights abuses against ethnic minorities.

"The key message that we want to get across this time is for ASEAN to really address, to really engage dialogue with the regime of how they have already been breaching the charter so that as a regional bloc that we really want it on the table as official agenda," she said.

ASEAN is expected to push Burma on reforms amid recent moves by several countries, including the United States, to re-engage with Burma's military government, while at the same time maintaining economic sanctions to influence the regime to end rights abuses.

Thailand is hosting this second summit of ASEAN leaders starting October 23. An earlier leaders meeting had to be canceled after anti-government protesters stormed a key venue where the summit was due to be held. The Thai government said it will step up security at the summit later this month.