The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has opened its annual summit in Hua Hin, Thailand, with a display of confidence in facing the global financial crisis.  But, Rights groups are expressing disappointment with the lack of engagement on human rights.

The ASEAN summit officially opened Saturday with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva expressing confidence in the organization's ability to weather the global financial crisis.

Mr. Abhisit said Southeast Asia had made it through both the Cold War and the 1997 Asian financial crisis by acting together.  He said their response to the global slow-down would be no different.

"We'll be severely tested from now on, both as a group and as a part of a broader Asian region," said Mr. Abhisit. "As the financial crisis deepens, the world will look towards our region for action and for confidence, which is exactly what we in ASEAN are set out to do."

Before the start of the summit, leaders from the 10 member countries held meetings to discuss challenges in the region.

They signed various technical agreements on economic and trade cooperation.

The most important deal was a landmark free trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand that could add tens of billions of dollars to their collective economies.

The ASEAN summit is being held under the banner of being a "people's" ASEAN, and for the first time involved direct engagement with rights groups.

But on Saturday government delegates from Burma and Cambodia refused to meet with rights groups' representatives from their own countries, despite the dialogue being on the official schedule.

Debbie Stothard is a coordinator with the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, also known as Myanmar.  She says the rights groups had no choice but to withdraw their Burmese and Cambodian representatives from the dialogue.

"We were put in a position where, as usual, the dialogue would be canceled simply because of Myanmar, and in this case Cambodia, being inflexible and being too afraid to face their own civil society," she said.

Women's Caucus representative Wathshlah Naidu said rights group representatives from Laos and Brunei did not take part in the meeting either, apparently out of fear for repercussions from their governments.

Soe Aung is with the Burmese rights group delegation that was not allowed at the meeting.  He told journalists ASEAN needed to change its policy of non-interference or no change would ever come to Burma.

"As long as the change did not take place in Burma, the ASEAN will not change at all," he said. "So, Burma's human rights violations continue.  Arrest and imprisonment of the politicians, activists, will not bring ASEAN any further."

Rights groups have been critical of ASEAN's formation of a human rights body that has no power to criticize or punish human rights violators.

The chairman of the panel forming the body, Sihasuk Phuangketkeow, defended it Saturday saying its purpose was not to single out violators but to increase awareness by promoting human rights protection.

"You can condemn, but probably you might not be able to make a difference on the ground," he said. "So, we're talking about making a difference, about preventing human rights abuses.  And, you have to start somewhere."

ASEAN was formed in 1967 as an anti-Communist alliance during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Its members now include the communist governments of Vietnam and Laos and military-run Burma, a pariah state that overthrew a democratically elected government. The other members are Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.