Lost opportunity on human rights
Once US President Donald Trump lands in Manila to attend the East Asia Summit on Sunday, national leaders from half the Asean member states can be at ease without worrying about being chided by the US leadership over human rights abuses and waning democracy in their countries. During the 31st Asean Summit and related meetings that end on Tuesday, leaders from Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines are unlikely to be pressed on issues that have traditionally concerned the US.
With Mr Trump's strategic interests in trade, investment and security, the gathering of regional and world leaders is a lost opportunity for improvement of human rights in the region.
The alleged ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, extrajudicial killings in the war on drugs in the Philippines and widespread suppression of political dissidents and opponents in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam should have made Asean a region that demands the American leadership to exert its influence to call for improvements in human rights and democracy.
Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, who asked regional leaders to uphold human rights during the Asean-US Summit last year in Laos, Mr Trump will pursue his "America first" trade agenda during the East Asia Summit and the Asean-US Summit. With security threats from North Korea, he will seek stronger commitments from Asean leaders to restrict trade and impose sanctions with the rogue regime.
True, yelling about human rights violations at Asean meetings may not be fruitful and effective given that Asean nations have strictly followed their principle of non-interference in the domestic matters of their members. The deteriorating human rights situations in the five countries will thus not be on the agenda at the meetings of the 10-member grouping.
But the US leader's addressing of the unprecedented level of human right abuses in the region can, at a minimum, remind Asean and world leaders that the very concerning trend needs to be improved.
With a lack of American leadership, it is important that other world leaders, such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres, take a lead in pressing the five Asean nations to uphold human rights principles.
The growing trend of rights abuses and waning democratic values in the region is a dire situation, with half of Asean members having spearheaded campaigns against their own people.
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh, escaping a military crackdown in Rakhine state that included massacres, rape, looting and mass burnings of homes. Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organisation, recently called for leaders at the Asean summits to pressure the Myanmar government to allow access to the troubled state by a UN fact-finding mission and other UN human rights and humanitarian staff.
Here in Thailand, the military government has continued its ban of political gatherings and imposed criminal charges against political dissidents and critics. Many are behind bars and many more are awaiting military court trials.
Cambodia has seen a similar trend. Prime Minister Hun Sen has conducted a political purge against his political opposition ahead of general elections next year. He is alleged to have arranged the arrest of the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, Kem Sokha, and pulled the strings behind the baseless legislative attacks against Mr Sokha and his party, which faces the prospect of being dissolved.
In Vietnam, more than 100 human rights activists and dissidents have been put in prison, while the government has continued to crack down on those criticising the state.
At Mr Trump's final destination of his longest trip abroad in Asia, the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte's anti-narcotics campaign has resulted in extrajudicial killings of thousands of suspected drug users and small-time dealers.
Sadly, Mr Trump will not ask them to improve their human rights records in exchange for better relations with the US. He will offer cooperation in areas of trade and security.
It remains to be seen how leaders such as Canada's Mr Trudeau, Japan's Mr Abe and the UN secretary-general will approach leaders at the summits over this worrying trend in the region and drum up support from them for better rights protection in those countries.
With Asean's non-interference principle, we cannot expect the region's leaders to pressure their peers to end human rights violations or crackdowns on political dissents.
But world leaders can elevate the issue to the international level and exert a certain level of pressure on the region's authoritarian leaders. Disappointingly, Mr Trump chooses to opt out of that role.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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