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Soft on regional issues? That’s the Asean way

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers, from left, Malaysia Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, Myanmar Foreign Minister U Kyaw Tin, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinal, Vietnam Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Philippine acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Brunei Daruasalam Foreign Minister Pehin Dato Lim Jock Seng, Cambodia Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, Laos Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith, ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh pose for a group photo during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting (AMM) in metropolitan Manila, Philippines on Friday, April 28, 2017. The Philippines is hosting the annual ASEAN Leaders' Summit this weekend. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers, from left, Malaysia Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, Myanmar Foreign Minister U Kyaw Tin, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinal, Vietnam Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Philippine acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Brunei Daruasalam Foreign Minister Pehin Dato Lim Jock Seng, Cambodia Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, Laos Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith, ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh pose for a group photo during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting (AMM) in metropolitan Manila, Philippines on Friday, April 28, 2017. The Philippines is hosting the annual ASEAN Leaders’ Summit this weekend. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

A senior diplomat on Friday parried calls for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to refer directly to the sea disputes with China and to address the worsening human rights situation in the Philippines in a chair’s statement to be issued at the end of the summit.

“Others may think it’s too gentle or lame. but that’s the process in Asean,” said Marciano Paynor Jr., Malacañang’s chief protocol officer who chairs the Asean summit national organizing committee.

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“For me, the process in Asean is we’re not confrontational. We’re consensual. The process in Asean is consensus. There’s no voting. Everybody has to agree. If even one says they have reservations, it won’t push through,” he said in an interview.

But Paynor said the dispute would be discussed by the Asean leaders, but it may not be included in the final document to be issued at the end of the summit.

“Definitely the West Philippine Sea issue will be mentioned in their meetings… Normally [the talk will focus] on the code of conduct, and peace and stability in the region, all referring to the West Philippine Sea or the South China Sea,” he said.

On Thursday, President Duterte dismissed the territorial disputes as a non-issue between China and the Philippines, and said he would not raise it.

As for the call by human rights groups to address extrajudicial killings in the brutal drug war being waged in the Philippines, Paynor said it was unlikely for any Asean leader to confront Mr. Duterte about it at all.

He noted the time when Burma (Myanmar), facing heavy international criticism for its military junta, had asked to let it solve its own problems. “Through the years, that became their policy, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who was one of the biggest critics of the military government,” he said.

“Non-interference is practiced as a policy by all 10,” Paynor said.

A copy of the updated draft of the chair’s statement obtained by the Inquirer however indicated that the group would highlight the improved ties between Asean and China on the matter of the South China Sea dispute.

This year’s draft statement showed that the portion on the dispute would only be summed up in three paragraphs, compared to eight paragraphs in last year’s Asean chair’s statement issued in Laos.

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“We also took note of the improvement of bilateral relations between some Asean member states and China,” said the draft, which was last updated at 1:30 p.m. on Friday.

It also expressed concern over Chinese reclamation activities in the disputed region, even as the text was significantly shorter than last year.

“We took note of the serious concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities in the area, which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region,” it said, as it called on claimants to avoid actions that would “further complicate” the situation.

It also welcomed the region’s bid to complete a framework of the “code of conduct” in the sea region by the middle of the year. “We recognized the long-term benefits that would be gained from having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and sustainable development,” it said.

Ratbag of dictators,  juntas

Mr. Duterte, 72, hosts regional leaders just less than a year in power. But so far, he faces a mass murder complaint before the International Criminal Court and an impeachment bid at home as bodies continue to pile up in his war on illegal drugs.

But he can rest easy with Asean expected to largely keep mum with its longstanding policy of non-interference.

That has fostered the 10-nation bloc, founded half a century ago, as it evolved into an unwieldy collective of dictatorships, authoritarian states and a monarchy, along with fledgling democracies.

The foul-mouthed President will not only fit right in, critics say, he’ll likely steal the show.

“The ratbag of dictators, autocrats and juntas that dominate Asean’s ranks perceive transparency, accountability and rule of law as existential threats rather than foundations of good governance,” said Phelim Kine of the US-based Human Rights Watch.

“Expect Asean leaders to yet again throw the human rights of an Asian country under the bus by remaining silent about Mr. Duterte’s abusive drug war by implicitly or explicitly invoking the organization’s ‘non-interference’ principle,”’ Kine said.

Alarm expressed by Western governments, UN rights officials and watchdog groups over scores of killings of drug suspects, however, isn’t reflected in a draft of the Asean chair’s statement to be issued by the Philippine President at the end of Saturday’s summit.

Instead, the leaders are expected to praise Asean efforts to advance human rights in a diverse region that remains a world hotspot.

The daylong summit is expected to focus on long-raging territorial rifts in the South China Sea, North Korea, terrorism threats and efforts to integrate the region’s diverse economies.

‘Duterte Harry’

Once a government prosecutor who fought outlaws and insurgents, Duterte became a longtime mayor of southern Davao City, where he received a nickname for his deadly anticrime campaign—“Duterte Harry,” after Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” movie character.

Since becoming President last June, his crackdown on suspected drug dealers and users has left nearly 2,800 people dead purportedly in gun battles with police. Another 6,000 deaths are being investigated.

The killings prompted a Filipino lawyer to submit documents to the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Monday, which he said contained evidence of crimes against humanity against Mr. Duterte. The President’s aides dismissed the move as black propaganda, along with an impeachment complaint, which has little chance of advancing in a Congress dominated by Mr. Duterte’s allies.  —WITH A REPORT FROM AP

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TAGS: Asean Summit, extrajudicial killings, human rights violations, Marciano Paynor Jr., martime dispute, South China Sea, West Philippine Sea
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