World Economy

As ASEAN turns 50, focus turns to region's shaky civil liberties plight

PHNOM PENH — Economic integration has long been the focus of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but attention is increasingly turning to the region's shaky civil liberties plight.

At a World Economic Forum (WEF) discussion in Cambodia's capital city on Wednesday, the organization's first regional meeting in the country, a group of experts shared their dreams for the bloc and human rights emerged as a common denominator.

"Development can only be sustained when people are secure," said Wai Wai Nu, a former political prisoner under Myanmar's military government who is now founder and director of Women Peace Network. "My dream is for ASEAN is to become an inclusive society where all people in the region can enjoy freedom with respect to their human rights."

Protesters calling for the release of jailed prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny, four human rights workers of Cambodian human rights NGO, and an election official outside the Phnom Penh Supreme Court.
Satoshi Takahashi / LightRocket / Getty Images

One of the goals for William Tanuwijaya, co-founder and CEO of Indonesian e-commerce giant Tokopedia is for politicians to run a clean government and inspire new generations to serve their citizens.

Meanwhile, AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes urged leaders to be open to criticism. "It's no secret that a freer a country is, the more creative it is."

Formed in August 1967, ASEAN promotes intergovernmental cooperation amongst its 10 members: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Lao, Myanmar and Vietnam.

As the bloc turns 50 this year, several members continue to enforce laws restricting freedom of expressions and the right to peaceful assembly. Such repressive policies have drawn stinging criticism from international non-profit groups who say the bloc must take human dignity as seriously as economic growth – ASEAN is expected to grow 5.1 percent annually through 2017-2021 and become the world's fifth-largest economy by 2020, the OECD estimates.

Cambodia, the host nation to WEF's 2017 ASEAN meeting, is no stranger to such attacks, especially in the aftermath of the unsolved murder of prominent anti-government critic Kem Ley in 2016. Politically motivated persecutions of activists have been common under the 32-year rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, according to Human Rights Watch.

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In response to CNBC's question about the government's treatment of its detractors, Kao Kim Hourn, Minister attached to the Cambodian PM's office, insisted his country was an open one.

"There's a limit as to how much you can criticize without evidence...It's a free society but yet, we have laws and if you play with the law, you're going to get into problems."

It wasn't fair to say that his government was cracking down on critics, he continued. "The government selectively chooses cases that affect the national interest. And those citizens go through a due process of law."

While ASEAN does have an official body overseeing democratic rights, its effectiveness has yet to be proven.

Known as the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, the entity has been dormant, "constricted by rules requiring consensus for any decision it makes, which has had a paralyzing effect on its actions," Amnesty International described in a February report.

Going forward, governments must be more open, remarked Wai Wai, recalling a time in Geneva when she was discussing the need to allow an international inquiry into widespread reports of Rohingya abuse in Myanmar. "At the time, Indonesian ministers told me that if they supported the idea of a UN rapporteur to investigate Myanmar, there would be similar proposals in their country… Leadership in ASEAN must be honest about these matters."