(Washington, D.C.) – United States President Barack Obama should make human rights a central and public focus of the upcoming summit of Southeast Asian leaders in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today in a new report on human rights in the Southeast Asia region. Obama is scheduled to host the leaders of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) February 15-16, 2016, at the Sunnylands estate in California in the first-ever US-ASEAN summit held in the US.
“President Obama knows that human rights are under assault in Southeast Asia; the question is whether he’s going to say or do something about it,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The risk is that the Sunnylands summit will empower and embolden ASEAN leaders who have been responsible for jailing journalists, cracking down on peaceful protesters, and dismantling democratic institutions after coups.”
The 63-page report, “Human Rights in ASEAN,” urges the Obama administration to raise particular human rights concerns at the summit, including political prisoners in Vietnam, politically motivated prosecutions in Malaysia, political repression in Cambodia, and the crackdown on free expression in Thailand.
In a letter sent to President Obama in January, Human Rights Watch called on him to urge ASEAN leaders to take specific actions on human rights ahead of the summit, including releasing significant numbers of political prisoners and dropping politically motivated charges. The letter also outlined several key human rights issues in ASEAN and urged the administration to facilitate civil society participation in the February summit.
The participation at Sunnylands of Thailand’s Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, who has presided over a crackdown on peaceful dissent and assembly since taking power in a 2014 military coup, is especially troubling, Human Rights Watch said. Prayut, who regularly threatens critics with violence and asserts that his decisions are unchallengeable, has repeatedly delayed a return to civilian democratic rule.
Another ASEAN leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years, using violence, intimidation, and politically motivated arrests and prosecutions against all perceived opponents, while allowing high-level corruption and cronyism to flourish. He refused to step down after losing an election in 1993, and subsequently carried out a coup in 1997. He is also implicated in possible crimes against humanity committed in the mid-1970s in eastern Cambodia when he was a commander in the Khmer Rouge. The latest election in 2013 was fundamentally flawed and the opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, is now living in exile to avoid arrest in politically motivated cases. Because of his dismal human rights record, it has long been US policy not to offer an official invitation to visit the US to Hun Sen.
Other ASEAN leaders expected to attend include three other unelected heads of government. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam and President Choummaly Sayasone of Laos preside over one-party authoritarian states that deny basic freedoms and use censorship, threats, and torture to maintain their party’s hold on power. The sultan of Brunei, Hassal Bolkiah, one of the world’s few remaining hereditary government leaders, has imposed a near complete ban on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly.
The prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, who is implicated in a massive corruption scandal, has engaged in a major crackdown on the political opposition, civil society groups, and the media, including imprisoning opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on trumped-up charges.
“President Obama should ensure that abusive ASEAN leaders do not gain undeserved legitimacy from attending Sunnylands,” Sifton said.
As outlined in Human Rights Watch’s new report, specific human rights issues relevant to ASEAN countries include the lack of free and fair elections; excessive restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly; unnecessary restrictions on civil society groups; abuses against human rights defenders and other activists; women’s rights; political use of courts; high-level corruption; lack of protections of refugees and asylum seekers; human trafficking; and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
“The US government’s diplomatic ‘rebalance’ to Asia could indeed bring positive changes if human rights and democracy are raised to the same level as other US priorities in the region,” Sifton said. “But only if Obama is prepared to tell ASEAN leaders who dismantle democracies or systematically repress their own people that they are harming their countries, both now and for the future.”