ASEAN –focus on protection of human rights

Updated On: Jul 03, 2007

The ASEAN Charter is currently being drafted, and some are keen to see it finally address human rights violations and issues of social justice.

Last week, human rights bodies from IndonesiaThailand, the Philippines and Malaysia convened in Bali to write a declaration calling on the ASEAN’s high level task force to cement respect for human rights within the forthcoming Charter.

Their call comes at a time when two other human rights related issues have been spotlighted in the regional media – migrant workers’s rights and the Myanmar government’s abuse of its citizens.

As the Jakarta Post reports, the four national human rights commissions intend to “prioritize the handling of migrant workers’ human rights violations”. This may be more problematic with illegal immigrants, because they do not own legitimate passports and other supporting documents. The Malaysia’s Human Rights National Commission agreed to pay attention to human rights violations in Indonesia andThailand, but it “required every migrant worker coming to that country to be in legal possession of an official identity papers so that if they have a problem during their employment they could be defended.”

Another concern was with migrant workers who are forbidden to hold onto their own identity papers. The Jakarta Post noted the many cases “involving the abuse of Indonesia migrant workers who are unable to flee because they don’t have their passports with them.” Endang Sulistyaningsih, Director of Promotion at the National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Overseas Workers (BNPPTKI) said, “The employers know this, and use it to control and hold their workers hostage.” During a renegotiation of a bilateral memorandum of understanding, Indonesia requested that Malaysiaallow each Indonesian migrant worker to keep his or her passport while working in the country. The Jakarta Post noted the Malaysia’s laws currently forbid this.

Meanwhile, Myanmar continues to offend international sensibilities and worry its ASEAN neighbours. In a rare meeting last week, United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs sat down with two ministers of the Myanmar junta to discuss the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. Unfortunately, the AFP quoted U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey as saying that the junta leaders “did not seem to relent”.

What is unusual this week is the criticism of Myanmar by an organization that is traditionally neutral, and discreet. Last weekend the International Committee of the Red Cross’s (ICRC) president Jakob Kellenberger issued an exceptionally strongly worded statement denouncing the Myanmar army for causing “immense suffering for thousands of people in conflict-affected areas.”  Most of these abuses occur along the Myanmar-Thai border, where clashes between the Myanmar army and ethnic minority insurgents have gone on for decades. AFP reported that the ICRC “highlighted repeated abuse against men, women and children in communities along the Thai border, including murder, violence, arbitrary arrests and ‘large scale’ destruction of food supplies.”  Detainees were also forced by the military to work in dangerous environment such as carrying heavy loads in minefield.  All of these abuses have been witnessed by ICRC staff or documented by them in private interviews with civilians.

Mr. Kellenberger explained the reason for the ICRC departing from its usual neutral stance, saying, “Despite repeated entreaties by the ICRC, the authorities have consistently refused to enter into a serious discussion of these abuses with a view to putting a stop to them…The continuing deadlock with the authorities [has led the Red Cross] to take the exceptional step of making its concerns public.”

At the broader political level, the Inter Press Service reported that the Myanmar government showed signs of abandoning its “roadmap to democracy” in favour of a “Chinese-style system of government”.  In one of its quarterly meetings held last week, the ethnic groups (who have ceasefire agreements with the government) were told that the current constitutional draft would be pushed ahead regardless of their view of it.

Myanmar’s ambiguous progress with its “roadmap to democracy” is a matter of concern for its ASEAN neighbours. The Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar expressed his hopes that Myanmarwould complete and approve its constitution, eventually holding elections. According to the Jakarta Post, Syed Hamid “stressed that Myanmar's neighbors remain concerned about democratization inMyanmar, even if governments in the 10-member ASEAN don't always publicly mention it.” Myanmar’s membership in ASEAN is based implicitly on the promise that the former will take concrete steps in its “roadmap to democracy” with national reconciliation and the drafting of a national constitution.

The concern over migrant workers rights within ASEAN member states and renewed international concern over Myanmar come at a time when ASEAN is preparing to commemorate its 40th anniversary. The ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong also stressed the need for a shift within ASEAN from mere economic cooperation to “the softer aspects of cooperation,” including “people-to-people ties and community building.” Ironically, it is yet uncertain if the ASEAN Charter will address the issues of illegal immigrants, transboundary human trafficking and the rights of migrants workers. If a more people-centred community were to be built, those issues would need to be seriously considered and hopefully be included in the Charter.


Myanmar Accused Of Abuse (Reuters, 1 July 2007)

ASEAN's 40th Anniversary Plans Aim At Connecting Citizens (Channel NewsAsia, 1 July 2007)

Myanmar Still On Asean’s Mind, Says Syed Hamid (Bernama, 30 June 2007)

BURMA: Generals Deviate on Roadmap to Democracy (Inter Press Service News Agency, 30 June 2007)

KL Urges Myanmar To Finish Drafting Constitution, Hold Elections (Jakarta Post, 30 June 2007)

US, Myanmar Hold Rare Talks Over Suu Kyi (AFP, June 30, 2007)

Human Rights ‘Should Be In Charter’ (Jakarta Post, 29 June 2007)

UN Coordinator’s Report Lists Causes Of Burma’s Social Problems (The Irrawaddy, June 29, 2007)

ASEAN Human Rights Declaration To Prioritize Migrant Workers’ Cases (Antara, 29 June 2007)

RI Migrant Workers ‘Must Keep Their Passports’ (Jakarta Post, 29 June 2007) (Antara, 29 June 2007)

US-Burma Meeting Was a Good Start (The Irrawaddy29 June 2007)

ICRC Slams Systematic Mass Abuse By Myanmar's Military (AFP, 29 June 2007)

In An Unusual Move, Red Cross Criticizes Myanmar (AP, 29 June 2007)

Red Cross Rips Into Burma’s Rights Toll (Financial Times, 29 June 2007)

Red Cross Condemns Burma ‘Abuses’ (BBC, 29 June 2007)

International Red Cross Denounces MyanmarGovernment Abuses (The Associated Press, Thursday, June 28, 2007)

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