HANOI, Oct 31, 2010 (AFP) – ASEAN’s attitude to Myanmar, and the harsh treatment of activists by the bloc’s chair Vietnam on the eve of its summit, highlight the group’s failure to confront human rights abuses, watchdogs say.

Just as Southeast Asian leaders arrived in Hanoi Thursday, Vietnamese courts sentenced three labour activists to up to nine years in jail, convicted several Catholic villagers in a dispute over a cemetery, and arrested a dissident.

But in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) circles, a crackdown that activists say is under way in Vietnam on political bloggers, activists and others, goes unmentioned.

The timing of last week’s convictions and arrests placed Vietnam’s rights record “under the spotlight,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

But he said he did not expect other members of the 10-nation bloc to criticise communist Vietnam because they all feel “vulnerable” on their human rights records.

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not bound by ASEAN’s principle of non-interference in members’ internal affairs, did speak up on the sidelines of regional talks Saturday.

“The United States is concerned about the arrest and conviction of people for peaceful dissent, attacks on religious groups, and curbs on Internet freedom,” Clinton said after meeting with Vietnamese leaders.

“Vietnam has so much potential, and we believe that political reform and respect for human rights are an essential part of realising that potential.”

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said ASEAN members should also speak out because they all signed the bloc’s charter under which they pledge “respect for and protection of human rights.”

“If they’re not prepared to do that publicly, at least do it privately,” Robertson urged.

ASEAN has faced its biggest test over its member Myanmar, which on November 7 holds its first elections in two decades.

Critics have dismissed the vote as a sham to entrench military rule, and say it cannot be credible while it excludes opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for a total of 15 years.

Human rights groups say Myanmar has one of the world’s worst human rights records, detaining thousands of opponents, systematically destroying ethnic minority villages and using rape as a weapon of war.

The military-run nation has been a source of embarrassment for ASEAN’s more democratic members but it has taken prodding by Western governments and the United Nations for the bloc to do more to push for change.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who met with ASEAN leaders last week, said he had reminded them that resolution of the Myanmar issue had wider implications for attempts to integrate the region more closely.

A coalition of regional lawmakers, the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, said Myanmar was already in “gross violation” of the ASEAN charter and had tainted the reputation of the entire region.

Amnesty International also said the bloc’s credibility is at stake.

“Failure to address both past and present violations may prove critical for the future realisation of peoples’ rights in Myanmar and the international credibility of its neighbours,” the watchdog said this week.

The United Nations chief this week commended ASEAN for establishing a human rights commission, known as the AICHR.

But regional human rights activists said the commission has “a defective mandate” and a lack of resources just one year after its establishment.

“When examining the ‘work’ that AICHR performed, one cannot help but wonder: what has AICHR done and for whom?” said Solidarity for ASEAN People’s Advocacy.

On Saturday Vietnam handed next year’s chairmanship to Indonesia, a country which many observers consider a democratic beacon in the region.

“Hopefully, Indonesia will focus more on democracy and human rights, because I really don’t have hope for Vietnam,” Pavin said.