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Civil society gagged at ASEAN conference

Civil society representatives were barred from a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as government officials from Burma and Singapore, among others, sabotaged the conference in Thailand last week, reports the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

A conference that was supposed to offer a space for civil society to engage with government officials was undermined by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Philippines and Burma, reports SEAPA. The five countries stopped their civil society representatives from participating, damaging the credibility of the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), according to a statement by organisers of the ASEAN People's Forum (APF).

On 22 October, Thai Foreign Ministry officials told organisers of the meeting that five out of 10 civil society individuals would not be permitted to speak at the event or meet with ASEAN heads of state, says APF. The representatives were also appalled to hear that Singapore and Burma selected members of government-sponsored agencies to replace members from non-governmental organisations. Burma chose two members from the Anti-Narcotics Association, one of whom is a former high-ranking police officer.

These actions rendered the meeting "meaningless" says APF. As a result, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia boycotted the meeting.

According to APF, civil society members were determined to engage with state officials to attempt to have a dialogue, "despite the insults and obstacles generated by some officials." But the commitment has been one-sided, with some members blocked from attending while others were essentially "gagged."

"We feel strongly that the rejection of our democratically selected representatives is a rejection of both civil society and the democratic process," report the organisers.

Debbie Stothard, coordinator for the Alternative Asean Network (Altsean), told Mizzima News that by rejecting civil society, ASEAN governments have violated their own charter, which is supposed to uphold the concept of a "people-centric community."

"The Irrawaddy" reports that ASEAN leaders took a "soft" approach towards Burma at the summit, calling on the junta to conduct free and fair elections in 2010.

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