As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began its Ministerial Meeting in Manila today, Human Rights Watch urged the group to tackle difficult human rights issues in the region that threatened stability and economic revival.

In recent weeks, the foreign ministers of two ASEAN governments, Thailand and the Philippines, have said that the notion of "non-interference in the internal affairs" of member states had become outmoded and should be scrapped. Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan expressed concern about political instability in Burma and the prospect of a new influx of refugees, and urged ASEAN to develop an approach of "flexible engagement."

"ASEAN's credibility is at stake. Can it effectively address the crises in Burma, Cambodia, and Indonesia?" said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "Now that an open debate has begun within ASEAN on `constructive engagement,' how ASEAN handles these issues will be a test of its commitment to human rights."

Philippines Foreign Minister Domingo Saizon said ASEAN's policy of non-intervention will be on the agenda. He has called for urgent talks between the Burmese government and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Philippines officials have also been openly critical of Cambodia, noting that a coalition government might be the best outcome from the July 26th elections in order to head off the "dictatorial tendencies" of any one party.

Cambodia's membership in ASEAN was delayed after the bloody coup in July 1997 staged by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen. Desperate for legitimacy, his government hopes that ASEAN membership might be approved either in Manila or at the next ASEAN ministerial meeting in September at the United Nations, in time for Cambodia to join the ASEAN leaders' summit in Hanoi this December. ASEAN governments have dispatched observers to the Cambodian elections slated for July 26.

Indonesian officials, meanwhile, will be meeting with Jakarta's major donors at an annual development aid conference convened by the World Bank in Paris on July 29-30, just days after the ASEAN gathering. President B.J. Habibie is struggling to resolve the country's economic and political crisis, including questions over the pace of political reforms, the impact of rapes and other attacks on ethnic Chinese during rioting in Jakarta and other cities in mid-May, the accountability of the army for human rights abuses, and rising tensions in East Timor and Irian Jaya.

Some ASEAN nations, including Indonesia, Burma, Laos and Vietnam, have publicly expressed alarm at any attempt to move away from consultation and consensus within ASEAN, clearly worried that a shift in approach would increase pressure for internal change. "ASEAN can no longer afford to hide behind consensus as a way of avoiding political questions with wider regional implications," said Jendrzejczyk.

Human Rights Watch urged ASEAN to play a constructive role in promoting good governance and the rule of law, which would help to restore donor and investor confidence in the region. It urged the ASEAN foreign ministers to consider the following specific initiatives at their July 24-25 meeting, and in discussions with the US, European Union, Japan, Canada, and other dialogue partners during the July 27-29 ASEAN Regional Forum and Post-Ministerial Conference:

On Burma, ASEAN should assign an envoy to work with all sides _ the Burmese military, the democratic opposition, and ethnic minority groups _ to explore how the recommendations of the UN Commission for Human Rights could be implemented, including release of political prisoners, an end to forced labor, and opening a political dialogue. Thailand, which recently signed a framework agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), should be urged to make the details of the agreement public and restate its commitment to protect refugees fleeing persecution in Burma. ASEAN's partners should join member governments in urging Rangoon to end the growing confrontation with the National League for Democracy (NLD) by lifting internal travel restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi and elected NLD members of parliament.

On Cambodia, ASEAN should refrain from making a decision on Cambodia's bid for membership until it is clear that elections have been free and fair, and that there is a peaceful transition without violence and intimidation. ASEAN should also insist on action by the Cambodian government to investigate and prosecute extra-judicial killings documented by the UN, as the ASEAN troika urged in its June 20th statement in Bangkok. Meanwhile, the Friends of Cambodia _ composed of donor countries, ASEAN nations, China, and others _ should make it clear in any statement issued in Manila that they will withhold government-to-government aid and a decision on Cambodia's seat at the UN General Assembly until a legitimate elected government is installed.

On Indonesia, ASEAN should urge the Habibie government to take concrete action to address the fears of ethnic Chinese, such as by repealing all discriminatory laws and regulations and ensuring that acts of violence against ethnic Chinese are investigated and punished. It should also seek clarification of the precise timing of the announced election timetable, expressing concern about the economic effects of continuing political uncertainty. The ASEAN states should encourage the Indonesian government to reform its judicial system in order to create a fully independent judiciary. The Malaysian government should be urged to grant the UNHCR full access to immigration detention centers holding undocumented migrant workers with a possible claim to refugee status. ASEAN should join its partners in highlighting the role of Indonesian NGO's in monitoring the distribution of emergency aid, both bilateral and aid from the Asian Development Bank and World Bank.