NGO Activists Dispersed by Summit Police

Some 30 representatives of Asean civil society groups were jostled by police and forced from a side street near the Asean Summit Monday as they attempted to deliver a list of issues affecting ordinary people in the region.

The representatives from the Asean People’s Forum and the Southeast Asian People’s Festival, which have been holding alternative meetings to coincide with the Asean Summit, said regional leaders must pay greater attention to the issue of human rights and social and economic inequalities.

“We believe that Asean’s primary purpose must be to serve the people of Southeast Asia. We believe [Asean] has the capacity and the responsibility to implement policies that truly reflect the interests of all citizens,” the delegates said in a statement.

Specifically, Asean leaders must focus on poverty eradication, a peace agreement in the conflict-torn Indonesian province of Aceh, ending human rights abu­ses by police and military forces, and bringing to justice those guilty of political crimes and atrocities against civilians.

This is the first Asean Summit at which the heads of state did not acknowledge the Asean People’s Forum of NGOs and would not meet individually with the NGO officials.

Blocked by a police checkpoint from approaching the Asean Summit at the Hotel Inter-Continental, the delegates unfurled banners that were quickly snatched by security forces, leading to several heated exchanges between the protesters and military police officers.

Nang Charm Tong, of the Shan Women’s Action Network and a member of Burma’s Shan ethnic minority, said she attended the alternative Asean meetings to highlight the Burmese army’s use of rape as a weapon of war.

Asean countries have to acknowledge the problem, Nang Charm Tong said.

“Asean keeps silent on the use of systematic rape against the Shan and other ethnic women by the Burmese military,” she said.

Khun Okker, of the National Committee for Civil Society in Burma, said since Rangoon joined Asean the situation of human rights had deteriorated.

“When Burma became a member of Asean it became worse,” he said, while Ban Thom, with the Assembly of the Poor, said he came to Phnom Penh to highlight the plight of Thailand’s poor.

“We want to voice the conditions of the poor in Thailand. We need an agenda for Asean to take care of the poor,” Ban Thom said as he was hustled into his vehicle by armed officers of the elite Flying Tigers unit.

Several Asean People’s Forum delegates also raised concerns over the anti-terrorism initiatives discussed by the heads of state, saying that individual governments could use the anti-terrorism sentiment to crack down on government dissidents with no ties to well-known militant groups.

“There is no concrete evidence that some of the groups the governments are targeting have ties to al-Qaida,” said Jodi Pasimio, of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development.

Naly Pilorge, director of local human rights group Licadho, said she deplored the police action and blasted the Asean Summit for not meeting leaders of grass roots organization in the region. Pilorge refrained from calling the confrontation a violation of civil rights but asserted that the incident set a precedent for intolerance.

“Why this fear?” Pilorge asked. “It is sad that police would prevent NGOs from peacefully submitting their symbolic letter in a public setting.”

Representatives from the People’s Forum proceeded to the embassies of all Asean Plus Three countries, as well as the EU and the UN human rights office to deliver the Asean People’s Agenda.

Most delegates delivered letters to embassy secretaries or security guards, but are hopeful that ambassadors will take the initiative to review Burma’s human rights atrocities and listen to the voices of people not represented at the summit.

“All men are born equal, but they sure don’t stay that way,” said one delegate after her fruitless mission. Members of the People’s Forum will return to their respective countries to plan for next year’s Asean Summit in Indonesia.

(Additional reporting by Kate Woodsome)


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