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May 29, 2017

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ASEAN human rights remain a pipe dream

Early this month, the U.N. special envoy for Burma (also known as Myanmar), Tomas Ojea Quintana wrote a letter to the chairman, Do Ngoc Son, of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) asking for a meeting "to exchange views" on their respective organizations and activities. The request was quickly turned down. Instead, he met with representatives from Thailand and Indonesia. In Jakarta, ASEAN permanent representatives including Burma also attended the meeting, which was described as useful and insightful.

Views were varied within ASEAN whether AICHR should meet with Ojea Quintana at this point. Like it or not with its establishment in October 2009, AICHR has automatically become the focus point of all activities related to human rights issues in ASEAN. Both Thailand and Indonesia thought that AICHR should have the opportunities to discuss issues related to human rights, especially those related to ASEAN, with Ojea Quintana who can bring in the much needed international perspective. Both countries believed that various aspects of human rights issues raised by the UN envoy would impact on ASEAN in the future.

Earlier, the U.N. special envoy has called for the establishment of a commission of inquiry (COI) into the crime against humanity committed by the Burmese junta leaders, citing the "the gross and systematic nature of human rights violations in Myanmar over a period of many years." Given the lack of accountability for those abuses, he suggested that the U.N. initiate a specific fact-finding mandate to investigate the possibility of international crimes.

It was a big blow to the reputation of ASEAN. For nearly 13 years since Burma's admission, ASEAN has not been able to use peer pressure to improve the human rights condition there. In fact, the gross and systematic abuses have continued unabated.

Worse, this issue has not been picked up by any ASEAN member even though the political situation in Burma was generally discussed. It is understandable as all members have dismal records on human rights. Only four ASEAN countries (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines) have established national human rights commissions that allow such sensitive issues to be discussed widely in the media and public.

Human rights activists in these countries have already challenged their governments to end the culture of impunity and investigated specific cases of human rights violations.

In Thailand, a special commission was recently set up to investigate the deaths of 90 persons killed during the April-May political crisis. Human rights and grassroots leaders and activists joined the commission. Last month, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III created a truth commission to probe rights abuses including the massacre in Maquindanao last November.

Until now there has not been any reaction from ASEAN countries, even though all are members of the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC). ASEAN has different views on the political situation and rights condition inside Burma. But nearly all of them do not perceive the situation as warranting an international inquiry team.

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