BANGKOK — Southeast Asian nations are set to unveil a landmark human rights watchdog this week, but critics charge it will be a toothless body that includes in its membership one of the world’s worst human rights offenders—military-ruled Burma (Myanmar).

Burma is sure to prove a burden again as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) holds its annual summit, undermining the bloc’s international standing and efforts to forge free trade areas with the United States and Europe.
“While ASEAN may try to move ahead, Burma remains the elephant in the room. It absolutely undermines the spirit of what ASEAN could ever do,” says Debbie Stothard, an activist with the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, as the country is also known.

The new body—ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights—is unlikely to set free Burma’s 2,000 political prisoners, including democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, or curb other violations.

The body, which cannot punish member nations, will focus on promotion rather than protection of human rights.

ASEAN leaders realize the formation of the human rights watchdog is just a start, but they say the new body may be given more teeth later.

And while members of the 10-nation bloc have recently escalated their criticism of Burma, the ASEAN summit will again act by consensus, avoid confrontations and maintain that the group’s engagement approach to Burma works better than the West’s sanctions and threats.

Agenda

The three-day summit, which begins on Friday, will also include talks with leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. Preliminary meetings begin Wednesday.

On the agenda are discussions on how to achieve a European Union-style community by 2015, cooperation on education, food security, bio-energy development and the signing of an ASEAN Declaration on Climate Change.

The Thai government has thrown a security cordon around the summit venue, a beach resort 200 kilometers south of Bangkok, to prevent antigovernment demonstrations.

Government spokesperson Supachai Jaisamuth said that about 18,000 policemen and soldiers would be deployed during the summit.

Security beefed up

In April, protesters stormed an Asian summit in the seaside city of Pattaya, shutting down the meeting and forcing the evacuation of several leaders by helicopter and boat.

This time around, security forces have been empowered to impose curfew and restrict freedom of movement around the Cha-Am resort and Bangkok.

Burma, which joined the 42-year-old bloc in 1997 despite international outrage, comes to the summit having recently released some political prisoners and having allowed Suu Kyi to meet with Western diplomats and a government minister.

More arrests

In a sharp break with its policy of shunning Burma, the US government has announced it would engage the military junta in direct, high-level talks while continuing its longtime economic sanctions on the regime.

Even so, the junta arrested more dissidents in recent weeks and made it clear that nobody would dictate Burma’s course, not even its staunchest ally China, with which relations have soured since August when the ruling generals launched an offensive against ethnic minorities along the Chinese border.

“Some powerful nations are resorting to various ways to pressure and influence our nation under various pretexts. However, the [military] government does not get frightened whenever intimidated,” Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the junta leader, said last week.

Incapable

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last month urged ASEAN to take a tougher line with Burma.

ASEAN leaders, however, are only likely to prod their fellow member to accelerate its so-called “road to democracy,” which includes elections in 2010.

“It is obvious that ASEAN is incapable of making any positive political change in the country. I don’t have any high hopes,” said Nyan Win, spokesperson for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in the Burmese capital Rangoon (Yangon).

ASEAN consists of Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. –Associated Press