Australia courts ASEAN amid human rights controversies

Leadership accused of making ‘moral compromises’ in dealing with leaders of Southeast Asia at Sydney summit.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong during their media conference during the one-off ASEAN summit in Sydney
The summit was criticised for highlighting Australia's perceived moral compromises [David Gray/Reuters]

As the first-ever ASEAN-Australia Special Summit came to a close on Sunday, Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, triumphantly announced that participants had committed to building “a more secure and prosperous region”.

During the two-day summit in Sydney, Turnbull and nine of his Southeast Asian counterparts had agreed to work together to enhance security cooperation and deepen investment and trade.

The unprecedented gathering illustrated Australia’s efforts to court Southeast Asia for strategic and economic gain at a time of rising Chinese clout and questions about continuing US influence in the region.

To critics, however, the event also spoke of the moral compromises liberal democratic Australia has been willing to make while cosying up to authoritarian leaders with little regard for human rights.

“It’s only about money, money, money,” said Hong Lim, a state representative for the rival Labor Party, referring to the government’s stance towards abuses across Southeast Asia.

Lim was among hundreds of demonstrators, mostly from expatriate communities, who gathered to protest the presence of Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, and de-facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the summit.

“It’s just terrible, degrading to us as a nation, as Australians, and we are better than that,” he said.

Human-rights exclusion

Many protesters, such Youhorn Chea, who came to Australia in 1982 after fleeing the Khmer Rouge, objected to the government focusing on trade and counterterrorism to the apparent exclusion of human rights.

“At the moment in Cambodia, we do not have any human rights, we do not have any peace,” said Chea, who leads the Cambodian Association in Victoria.

Hun Sen, who last year oversaw the dissolution of the main opposition party and forced closure of one of the country’s few independent news-papers, has been accused of leading Cambodia towards full-blown dictatorship.

Members of Myanmar’s Rohingya ethnic minority also featured prominently in the demonstrations, chanting for the country’s de factor leader Aun San Suu Kyi to go home.

WATCH: ASEAN summit highlights Korean tensions and South China militarisation

Aung San Suu Kyi, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has been widely condemned for turning a blind eye to military-led ethnic cleansing that has caused the displacement of an estimated 700,000 Rohingya people.

At a time of shifting power dynamics in the Asia-Pacific, ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has emerged as a diplomatic priority for Australia, which performs a careful balancing act between Washington, its defence ally, and Beijing, its main trading partner.

“There is this sense that Southeast Asia is an area that is in active competition between the US on one side and China on the other,” said Euan Graham, an analyst at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.

Graham said that the region offered Australia opportunities to mitigate its reliance on the two big powers.

Already, the ASEAN economies, when taken together, are Australia’s third-largest trading partner, after China and the European Union.

Military relations

In 2016-17, trade between Australia and the 10 member countries amounted to over 100bn Australian dollars ($78bn).

Canberra has also cultivated military relations with a number of ASEAN members.

Most controversial of all has been its defence ties with Myanmar and the Philippines, whose President Rodrigo Duterte, not in attendance at the Sydney summit, has faced international condemnation over his support of extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals.

At the closing of the summit, Turnbull justified Australia’s growing military ties with ASEAN countries by pointing to the spectre of “terrorism” and emphasising the need for regional stability.

“We have committed to intensify our response to regional and global challenges such as North Korea, terrorism and violent extremism,” he said.

“We will uphold our commitment to the rules-based order and international law in the region, including the South China Sea.”

Behind the scenes, Turnbull is reported to have broached conditions in Cambodia with the country’s leader, although it’s not known what was said during the “frank engagement”.

When asked about the plight of the Rohingya people at the weekend, the Australian prime minister said Aung San Suu Kyi had addressed the controversy and asked for international “help” to resolve the crisis, for which her government has denied any responsibility.

Publicly, however, Australia has been reticent to comment on the human-rights controversies engulfing Southeast Asia.

‘Gently, softly’ approach

While pledging to “promote and protect the human rights” in general, the Sydney Declaration resulting from the weekend’s gathering makes no mention of conditions in Myanmar, Cambodia or any other country.

When asked during a press conference with Lee Hsien Loong, Singaporean prime minister, if he would challenge his guests on human rights, Turnbull played down suggestions of state persecution across the region as “sweeping generalisations”.

Lim, who immigrated from Cambodia in 1970, said the government’s “gently, softly” approach towards Hun Sen and other was not good enough.

WATCH: ASEAN summit held in Sydney

“We feel strongly that the government, especially in this case, has failed in their duty of care to be providing a voice, providing representing,” he said.

Diana Sayed, crisis campaigns coordinator for Amnesty International Australia, said Australia was guilty of beautifying the reality of conditions in Myanmar.

“In rolling out the red carpet for Aung Sun Suu Kyi and white-washing what is really happening, we missed a golden opportunity to take a leadership role on human rights in condemning the ongoing Rohingya crisis and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera