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When world leaders talk about 'human rights' and when they do not

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By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com

The spectacle of the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh did more to lay bare the problems, conflicts and paradoxes of relations among the region’s wildly different and widely scattered nations than to resolve them.

Leaders at ASEAN summit on Nov. 20. / Tan Chhin Sothy / AFP

The fact that at least three of the leaders at this year’s ASEAN summit won’t be around next year only added to the failure of the gathering to accomplish a lot beyond statements and photo-ops.

The successors to President Lee Myung-Bak and China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will all face the same problems of regional confrontation and expansionism and flagrant human rights abuses while talking vaguely of turning East and Southeast Asia into one vast free trade zone.

President Barack Obama by his presence in Phnom Penh did more to legitimize than to reform the outlook of Cambodia’s despotic leader, Hun Sen, a one-time Khmer Rouge fighter who’s been in charge there for nearly 30 years. Hun Sen could not have asked for a better forum at which to demonstrate his prestige ? and his right to go on bullying his people.

When I visited Phnom Penh in 1985, 10 years after the fall of the U.S.-backed regimes in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, Hun Sen seemed like an almost progressive leader who’d had the good sense to get out of the Khmer Rouge when he saw how brutally they were behaving.

He had defected from the Khmer Rouge and returned to Phnom Penh with the Vietnamese forces that ousted the Khmer Rouge in late 1978. He spoke genially and rather convincingly at a briefing that I attended of his plans for developing the country as it struggled with the legacy of Khmer Rouge rule.

Over the years since then Hun Sen has been responsible for the elimination of rivals, dissidents, critics and all-around trouble-makers, including people forced out of their homes to make way for foreign investment and government projects riddled with corruption.

As if that were not enough, he’s sided with China, the historic source of support for the vanquished Khmer Rouge, in discouraging criticism of Chinese militancy in the South China Sea, including island groupings claimed by two major Southeast Asian nations, Vietnam and the Philippines. Obama may have taken Hun Sen to task about “human rights,” but his presence strengthened the image that Hun Sen loves to project as a munificent leader.

For the U.S., the game has been to modulate the emphasis on human rights depending on the usefulness of the regime. Obama before getting to Phnom Penh got a hero’s welcome in Burma, which he took pains to call Myanmar, the name given the country by its military rulers, when he met President Thein Sein. He also called on Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel prize-winning opposition activist whose release from house arrest symbolizes the country’s hesitant move toward reform.

If Obama’s Southeast Asian trip did not do much to bring about real reform, it was ground-breaking in the sense that no U.S. President had ever visited either Cambodia or Burma/Myanmar. The trip, moreover, was a reminder of the “pivot” toward Asia of which Obama has spoken. It’s unlikely, however, that the talking did a thing to curb Chinese expansionism, especially in view of Hun Sen’s support of China, the main source of foreign funding for his regime.

In the cynical game of international power politics, moreover, the question of Chinese support of North Korea while the North goes on with fearsome missile and nuclear programs did not come up at the ASEAN gathering. Although the forum in Phnom Penh gave a chance for separate talks between leaders, neither President Lee nor Prime Minister Wen Jiabao wanted to talk to Prime Minister Noda. Here too, the ASEAN forum did more to accentuate differences than to bring about solutions.

As for addressing North Korea’s abysmal human rights record, that topic was totally off the table, irrelevant if not taboo. No one has any illusions about the possibilities for North Korea emulating Burma when it comes to opening up the country, releasing prisoners or tolerating dissent.

The real question is how the United States in Obama’s second term is going to address the North Korean issue. He, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have been offering total support for President Lee, but the next Obama administration is going to adjust to the outlook of the next president of South Korea. Clinton’s successor as secretary of state, possibly Susan Rice, will modulate policy depending on who gets elected president of South Korea next month.

No matter what, the South will be looking for ways to break the impasse in dialogue with the North. Resumption of shipments of food and fertilizer to North Korea and a deal on fishing rights for North Korea south of the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea are possibilities. Reconciliation will remain the basic goal even as the South follows through on strengthening defenses.

As at the ASEAN meeting, Obama will go on paying lip service to human rights for North Korea. The U.S., however, is not likely to make it a priority, much less do anything about it.  Human rights are like a tune that policy-makers play as needed. In Cambodia and Burma, Obama adjusted the volume depending on the exigencies of the moment.

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