WASHINGTON — US officials voiced concern Thursday about human rights in fast-growing Southeast Asian nations, pointing to a lack of progress in many places and a worsening situation in some.
As the United States pursues its rebalance toward Asia, it is also paying greater attention to human rights in many countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam, State Department officials told lawmakers.
“Human rights is one of the more difficult issues we raise with our partners, but we must raise them,” Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs Joseph Yun told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee.
In November, Southeast Asian leaders endorsed a controversial human rights pact, hailing it as a landmark accord to help protect some 600 million people.
But critics said it had left too many loopholes for ASEAN, which groups a diverse range of political systems ranging from authoritarian regimes in Laos and Vietnam to freewheeling democracies such as the Philippines.
“While the substance of declaration on human rights is not what we would wish, I would say that Southeast Asians doing it is an important fact,” Yun insisted.
“They have never agreed among all of them… whether they ought to have common human rights goals,” he said, admitting there was still a long way to go.
In Vietnam, for example, “we’ve been disappointed in recent years to see backsliding, particularly on freedom of expression issues,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Rights and Democracy Dan Baer.
He cited concerns about the prosecutions of people for speaking out on the Internet, adding there had been “some progress in religious freedom issues in Vietnam a few years ago, and that, too, seems to have stagnated.”
Things had not improved in Cambodia either, while in Laos, the disappearance of activist Sombath Somphone in December “had a chilling effect on the broader civil society” because he had not been viewed “as a particularly radical guy.”
Both men highlighted that it was also important to keep an eye on the role of the military in Southeast Asian nations, particularly in Myanmar, also known as Burma, which was under military rule for six decades.
“We’re seeing far less military intervention than we ever did, which is very, very good news,” Yun told the senators.
“But we still have situations — the prime example being Burma — where 25 percent of their legislature is appointed by the military,” he said, adding that “it’s not a sustainable, long-term situation.”
Baer said military-to-military relationships were a good way of setting an example in the region.
“There’s no easy recipe for persuading a bunch of guys who have had a lot of power and gotten a lot of money for a long time to give that up,” Baer said.
But he referred to a human rights dialogue held in October attended by US Army Pacific commander Lieutenant General Francis Wiercinski.
Having “a guy with three stars on his shoulders deliver that message, it was certainly more powerful than had it come from me, but even more powerful than had it come from any civilian.”