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Leaders pose for a photo during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-Australia Summit, in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 7, 2023.  © 2023 Willy Kurniawan/Pool Photo via AP

This week, in Melbourne, the Australian government for the second time is hosting leaders for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-Australia Special Summit.

It's been six years since the last summit on Australian soil.

While many countries in the region have seen economic growth during that time, repression and democratic backsliding has also been growing. The rights of people across the region are being trampled or ignored. The summit is an opportunity to put those issues, and the rights of south-east Asian people, front and center.

In 2018, Aung San Suu Kyi represented the government of Myanmar at the summit. Since then, the military has ousted the civilian-led government and has drawn the country into a spiraling human rights and humanitarian crisis.

The military has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity - Aung San Suu Kyi is among the tens of thousands arbitrarily detained. She is serving 27 years in prison under a slew of fabricated charges.

Six years ago, Hun Sen was Cambodia's leader posing for selfies at Sydney Harbor and brazenly threatening Cambodians who dared to protest that he would "beat them." Now his son Hun Manet is leader.

As Human Rights Watch has documented, physical assaults of opposition members have continued. The opposition leader Kem Sokha is serving a 27-year sentence confined to his home, and the main opposition party was banned from contesting the sham 2023 elections.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited last time and will attend the summit again, but his term is ending. Indonesia's democratic institutions meant to provide a check on power such as the Constitutional Court and Anti-Corruption Commission have been eroded, with a return to dynastic patronage politics.

His likely successor is currently the defence minister, Prabowo Subianto - implicated in massacres in East Timor in 1983, and the 1997-1998 kidnappings of activists in Java that led to his dismissal from the army.

The lesson is that when there is no proper accountability following a truth commission as in Timor-Leste, even notorious human rights abusers can go on to hold political power. Prabowo has the support of Widodo, who paired his son Gibran Raka to be Prabowo's vice-president.

Then-Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte skipped the last summit. Now it's Ferdinand Marcos jnr son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. His son is desperate to rehabilitate the family name and is being feted by Western leaders from Washington to Canberra.

While the Australian government may be relieved to have a non-volatile pro-West partner in Malacaang Palace, the summary killings of drug suspects still occur regularly because of the lack of accountability for police violence.

The government refuses to co-operate with the International Criminal Court's investigation into the "drug war" killings, and killings of leftist activists and trade unionists continue, fueled by the authorities' practice of "red-tagging" them as "communists."

Thailand's then-Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha, who seized power in a 2014 military coup, attended the last summit. As in Myanmar, Thai generals had the foresight to shore up their continued domination of the political process through a constitutional and legal framework that enabled the military to determine who became prime minister.

So when the reformist Move Forward Party resoundingly won the most votes in the May 2023 election, entrenched interests had ways to prevent them from assuming power. Now Thailand is ruled by Srettha Thaivisin, a former businessman from the Pheu Thai party, while the former exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is back home, on parole and holding court for ruling party politicians.

Malaysia's leader in attendance is Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who doggedly won the last election after years of trumped-up charges against him. As Anwar struggles to hold together a fragile coalition of parties, many of his promises for reform have gone unmet.

Vietnam and Laos both remain Communist Party states that don't even pretend to hold independent elections. Laos is chairing ASEAN this year. Vietnam is enjoying attention from Western capitals and companies looking to "de-risk" from China. Meanwhile, its crackdowns have intensified against activists, including environmental defenders.

This regional backsliding on democracy and human rights should be of immense concern to the Australian government and Australians. The government is rightly worried about the Chinese government's growing influence in the region. Across south-east Asia, Chinese companies as part of China's mass surveillance infrastructure are building "smart" city systems that collect massive amount of personal and other data without oversight.

Beijing is actively seeking to shore up support for votes from governments in the region to evade accountability at the United Nations and in the global arena.

And it is pressing south-east Asian governments to return dissidents and ethnic Uyghurs, sending a stark reminder to Chinese nationals that even if they have left the mainland, they are not truly safe.

Instead of taking bold steps to defend democracy and human rights, Australia and other democratic governments have shown less willingness to hold human rights abusers responsible if those abusers are strategic allies, trade partners in "de-risking," or otherwise considered helpful in containing China.

The approach is deemed "pragmatic" but involves passively monitoring the decline of human rights and democracy across the region or raising matters privately, where there is little chance of impact.

Meanwhile, civil society activists, government critics and journalists are facing intimidation, threats, harassment, and in some cases physical attacks.

ASEAN has proven woefully inadequate in addressing regional human rights crises - most starkly evident with its impotent and ineffectual response to atrocities in Myanmar.

This is hardly likely to improve now that Laos is the chair. Australia should use this summit to press for meaningful co-ordinated action on Myanmar.

Australia is right to forge greater trade and security ties and strengthen its relationships in the region.

But those ties alone will not be enough to stop the authoritarian slide. In its capacity as summit host, the Australian government can direct conversations with a human rights focus.

It can encourage openness by acknowledging the deficiencies in its domestic rights record.

This forthright approach will send the message that strong diplomatic relations still thrive without condoning or covering up each other's human rights concerns.

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