Parliamentarians in Southeast Asia have called on President Barack Obama to emphasise human rights and democracy when he hosts ASEAN leaders next week.
The two-day summit starts on February 15 at the Sunnylands estate in California. More than 100 ASEAN parliamentarians, mostly from Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia, wrote to Mr Obama yesterday, asking him to shift his priorities away from trade and security.
“Human rights, democracy, and basic dignity cannot take a backseat to economic or security prerogatives,” ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said in a statement.
President U Thein Sein cancelled previous plans to attend the summit late yesterday, Reuters reported. It was expected to be one of Thein Sein's last foreign trips as president, before he vacates the office next month. The President's Office announced that Vice president Nyan Htun will be attending in his place.
The summit is an opportunity for further discussion of the US-ASEAN strategic partnership, launched in Malaysia last November, which focuses mainly on security and the economy.
APHR, without singling out particular countries, said the focus of the summit should instead be on fundamental rights of freedom of expression and an end of arbitrary arrest in the region because “many countries ... have taken dramatic steps backward”.
“Democracy is under threat from governments that are cracking down on opposition voices, including parliamentarians, and thwarting the will of the people through military takeovers, politically motivated court cases, and the fomentation of hatred among communities,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and APHR chair.
U Shwe Maung, a former MP for the Union Solidarity and Development Party who was barred from running in last year’s election on the grounds his parents were not Myanmar citizens, a charge he denies, was the only Myanmar politician to sign the letter.
Three former MPs from Thailand, who have been unable to stand for election since the coup in 2014, also signed the letter which called setbacks such as military takeovers “a fundamental threat to the future of the ASEAN Community”.
“Our leaders should not be rushing to sign trade deals with the United States, but should instead be focusing on making the people’s interests their priority,” said Eva Sundari, an Indonesian MP and vice chair of APHR.