HUA HIN, Thailand–Southeast Asian leaders were strongly criticized on Friday after launching a widely derided human rights body and barring activists from a key meeting at a regional summit.

Around 18,000 troops and dozens of armored vehicles were deployed for the opening of the event in the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin after it was twice postponed by violent anti-government protests in the past year.

Heads of state from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will hold talks focusing on the economy before meeting their counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand at the weekend.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva defended the new rights body against criticism that it is toothless to deal with members that breach its rules — such as army-ruled Myanmar and communist Vietnam and Laos.

“The establishment of the commission is yet another significant milestone in the evolution of ASEAN,” Abhisit said after leaders of the 10-member bloc officially inaugurated the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

But the launch was marred by a row over the exclusion of rights activists from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Singapore who were meant to meet ASEAN leaders at Hua Hin to discuss the new watchdog.

Several other angry delegates later boycotted the meeting.

“This is an outrageous development,” said Debbie Stothard of the independent ASEAN People’s Forum, which nominated the activists. “It is a rejection of civil society and of the democratic process by which they were selected.”

The rights commission has also drawn fire for focusing on the promotion of rights rather than actual protection in the region of nearly 600 million people.

The United Nations on Thursday urged leaders to make the commission “credible”. ASEAN says it will review the body’s powers in five years.

Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at Singapore Management University, said the rights body was “a start, but far short” of being a credible mechanism.

Myanmar is likely to come under the spotlight at the summit for its continued detention of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, but it regularly gets an easier ride from its regional neighbours than the West would like.

The United States recently embarked on a major policy shift to re-engage Myanmar’s junta after decades of hostility, but has said it will not ease sanctions until there is progress on democracy and human rights.

The summit could also be riven by tensions between Thailand and Cambodia after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen invited ousted former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra to stay in his country.

Asian leaders at the summit are later expected to turn their attention towards growing economic integration, especially with China, and plans to establish an EU-style economic community by the year 2015.

The leaders will sign a host of agreements on economic and other issues including disaster management, communications and food security in the rapidly changing region.

They are also expected to grapple with climate change and urge rich nations to take on the burden of tackling carbon emissions ahead of a December meeting in Copenhagen, where the world will try to hammer out a new climate treaty.

The ASEAN summit was originally to be held in the popular tourist destination of Pattaya in April but anti-government “Red Shirt” protesters loyal to Thaksin stormed the venue halfway through.

Foreign leaders were forced to flee, some of them by helicopter or boat. Diplomats said Asian nations, led by China and Japan, demanded to see full security plans from Thailand before committing to this weekend’s summit. –Agence France-Presse