U.S.-ASEAN summit needs more than symbolism



Human rights and democracy advocates are calling on President Barack Obama to use the occasion of this week’s U.S.-ASEAN summit at California’s Sunnylands retreat to publicly raise concerns about human rights and democratic regression in Southeast Asia.

Civil society organizations have criticized Obama’s decision to host a number of autocratic ASEAN leaders on U.S. soil.

Despite [recent] advances, erosion of democratic governance, protection of human rights, and a narrowing of space for civil society elsewhere in Southeast Asia is worrying, writes John J. Brandon, senior director of The Asia Foundation’s regional cooperation programs in Washington, D.C.:

The U.S.-ASEAN Summit is a good signal for cooperation between the U.S. and ASEAN. While symbolism is important, next week’s summit at Sunnylands needs to be more than symbolic. A successful meeting with concrete measures and deliverables to address economic integration, transnational challenges, and maritime cooperation will put “meat on the bones” of the “strategic partnership” for the next U.S. president who comes to office in January 2017. Addressing these issues will take time. It will also require stronger regional cooperation among ASEAN nations themselves as well as assistance from the United States (and other nations) in order to build a strong, stable, politically cohesive, economically integrated, socially responsible, people-centered ASEAN community.

The summit should also address Vietnam’s ongoing human rights violations, says a letter addressed to President Obama by a collection of human rights organizations, religious communities and dissidents, including Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu, a former political prisoner:

The letter, highlights the case of prominent human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai,  but also calls for the release of hundreds of other political and religious prisoners of conscience. Dai, arrested in mid-December and presently in detention without access to legal representation, is one of many deeply troubling cases.

“Both countries want to enhance trade relations and we are insisting that universal human rights be a part of that conversation too,” says Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang, CEO and president of Boat People SOS.  “The U.S. cannot turn a blind eye to systematic torture and arrests of people who are simply exercising their basic rights,” he adds.

Obama will speak for human rights and democracy, though administration officials acknowledge ASEAN countries have vastly different political models, and records on human rights and democracy, VOA adds.

“The U.S. rule has not been to dictate the precise model that each is going to take given that they are at different stages of development,” said [White House advisor Ben] Rhodes. “However, we do make it a part of our engagement to support basic universal rights, to support civil society.”

Countries showing “positive movement in pursuit of a democratic transition” — like Myanmar — will get U.S. support, officials say.

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