Southeast Asian leaders have inaugurated the region's first body to promote human rights at summit meetings in Thailand. But the inauguration was overshadowed by activists being barred from a dialogue with Southeast Asian leaders and tension between the Thai and Cambodian prime ministers.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Friday marked the establishment of its inter-governmental commission on human rights, known as AICHR.
Speaking at the ceremony marking the occasion, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said it was a significant advancement for ASEAN and placed human rights at the center of its agenda.
"The responsibility now rests on all of us to work together to move AICHR forward, to make it credible and effective in the promotion and protection of human rights," he said.
But as the annual ASEAN summit in Hua Hin was celebrating the new rights body, rights activists were lamenting.
Half of the representatives they chose for an ASEAN-civil society dialogue Friday were not allowed to meet Southeast Asian leaders, while those who were allowed into the meeting were not permitted to speak.
The rights activists representing Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand walked out in protest.
The governments of Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, and the Philippines rejected the activists meant to represent their countries.
The governments of Singapore and Burma went one step further by choosing their own representatives for the talks.
Debbie Stothard is with the regional rights group Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma.
"And by trying to pick people that they feel comfortable who will be 'yes' people and echo what they want does not solve the problem, it merely prolongs it. This region cannot afford to let these problems continue," she said.
It was not the first time ASEAN leaders rejected scheduled dialogue with activists. At ASEAN meetings in February, Cambodia and Burma refused to meet with representatives chosen by rights groups.
ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told VOA that some flexibility was needed for ASEAN members that were not at the same level of what he called "democratic evolution."
In other controversy at the ASEAN summit, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen repeated an offer to welcome Thailand's former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to stay in Cambodia.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup that led the current government to power.
He fled Thailand to avoid corruption charges and has since been encouraging anti-government protests that forced the cancellation of an April ASEAN summit.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told journalists that Mr. Hun Sen was misinformed about Thaksin and should not allow himself to be a pawn or make decisions that could affect Thai-Cambodia relations.