JAKARTA, 11 February 2016 – Over 100 parliamentarians from across Southeast Asia sent a joint letter to US President Barack Obama today, urging him to make discussion of human rights and democracy a priority during the upcoming US-ASEAN Summit.
“While we recognize and understand your administration’s desire to strengthen trade and security cooperation with Southeast Asian governments, we urge you to proceed with caution. Human rights, democracy, and basic dignity cannot take a backseat to economic or security prerogatives,” the letter reads.
The letter, drafted by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), is signed by 111 current and four former members of parliament from Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, and Thailand, including both ruling party and opposition members. The list includes former MPs from Thailand who have been unable to stand for election as a result of the Thai military’s suspension of democracy following its May 2014 coup.
The US-ASEAN Summit, which is scheduled for 15-16 February at the Sunnylands estate in California, will bring together the leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries for a meeting to discuss the future of the US-ASEAN relationship.
In their letter, parliamentarians call on President Obama to raise key human rights issues at the meeting, including land rights violations, the continued detention of political prisoners, and restrictions on free elections, expression, and assembly. They also urge him to press for commitments from ASEAN leaders to address these and other concerns.
“Our constituents demand and deserve governments that respect their rights and dignity. The United States is uniquely positioned to support our demands for accountability from our region’s leaders, and the upcoming summit presents a distinct opportunity to do just that,” parliamentarians argue in the letter.
The summit, which is aimed at strengthening US-ASEAN collaboration, comes at a pivotal time for Southeast Asia, as states across the region have slid backward on their commitments to democracy and human rights.
“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 APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, who is a member of parliament in Malaysia.
MPs argue that the US-ASEAN relationship would be best strengthened through a focus on improving conditions for human rights and promoting more open, democratic systems. They also urged their own leaders to be responsive to the concerns of their citizens.
“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, APHR Vice Chair and Indonesian Member of Parliament. “We must build mechanisms to integrate participation of the people and organize public consultations—as many as possible. ASEAN leaders must also conduct impact assessments for economic decisions and listen to the people’s voice.”
“Not only must human rights be on the agenda, it must be central to it. If ASEAN is to really be a people-centered community, its leaders must be focused on issues that are of importance to the people themselves,” she added.