As senior diplomat Le Luong Minh officially assumed the post of ASEAN Secretary-General about a week ago, a court in his home country Vietnam was sending more than a dozen peaceful activists to jail in the largest trial of its kind in the one-party communist state.
The timing might have been coincidental. But the conviction and harsh jail sentences on the 14 activists provide an ominous backdrop to the appointment of the first Vietnamese official at the helm of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the group begins to lay the groundwork for human rights protection in the region.
When Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995 after coming out of the diplomatic cold, many had expected it to show leadership, especially to the other mainland Southeast Asian states—Burma, Cambodia and Laos—which joined the group later and united the region for the first time.
Eighteen years later, Vietnam remains an authoritarian state despite economic progress and its rights violations are serving as a bad example to its smaller neighbors Cambodia and Laos.
Hanoi's human right record is abysmal, rights groups say, as it wages an unrelenting campaign to muzzle dissent.
Several dozen activists were thrown in jail last year for expressing their opinions and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says its 2012 prison census showed Vietnam held 14 reporters behind bars, making the country the sixth worst jailer of journalists in the world.
The government suppresses virtually all forms of political dissent, relying on loosely-worded national security laws, including those which vaguely prohibit activities aimed at “overthrowing the government.”
"[T]he government appears despotic to its own people and the world when it says that someone who tries to uphold the rights of others is a threat to the state,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The 14 bloggers, writers, and political and social activists convicted last week were sentenced to up to 13 years for "subversion of the administration” in a verdict criticized by the United Nations, the United States, France, and several other governments.
Prosecutors had accused the 14 of working with a U.S.-based exile group Viet Tan, which Hanoi calls a terrorist organization, a term which even the U.N. thinks is absurd.
“Although Viet Tan is a peaceful organization advocating for democratic reform, the Government has deemed it to be a 'reactionary organization,'” said a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Rupert Colville.
“None of those convicted are alleged to have been involved in violent acts,” he said, expressing alarm over the limited space for critical voices in Vietnam.
In fact, a number of those convicted had carried out volunteer activities in their local neighborhoods. They had encouraged women not to have abortions, supported the poor and people with disabilities, and worked to protect the environment and labor rights.
“The convictions of the 14 activists illustrate a deeply worrying trend, and suggest that the crackdown is set to continue in 2013,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s researcher on Vietnam.
Rights groups also expect Laos and Cambodia, which holds national elections in July, to further restrict freedom this year.
Questionable court rulings
In Cambodia, 2012 was a "very bad year" for human rights, amid a "harsh crackdown on freedom of expression and widespread land ownership disputes and forced evictions,” said Janice Beanland, Amnesty International’s Campaigner on Cambodia.
A series of court rulings have also been questioned by rights groups, which accuse Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's government of using the justice system as a tool to suppress dissent and undermine rights.
In Laos, the disappearance of a popular local social activist has sent shockwaves through non-governmental organizations and the international community since he was last seen taken away by unidentified men after he was stopped by police in the capital Vientiane about a month ago.
Three Southeast Asian lawmakers who flew to Laos to prod top government officials to get to the bottom of the case suggested that some section of the government or rogue elements within the government might have abducted the 60-year-old Sombath Somphone.
"[A]t a time when ASEAN is coming together as a real community in the eyes of the world, his disappearance reflects badly not only on Laos but on the whole ASEAN community," said Philippines Congressman Walden Bello, who was among lawmakers who spoke to Lao government officials and legislators on the case.
The ASEAN group, which recently adopted the region's first declaration on giving greater protection of human rights for the region's 600 million people, has been asked to push Laos to come clean over Sombath's issue.
"His disappearance looks more and more like a blatant display of political arrogance and central control inside Laos. Increasingly in the new regional landscape, such an authoritarian system is no longer acceptable," The Nation newspaper in Thailand said in an unusually strong editorial.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also piled pressure on the Lao government over Sombath’s case, asking it “to pursue a transparent investigation of this incident and to do everything in its power to bring about an immediate and safe return home to his family.”
National or ASEAN's interest?
With Minh heading the ASEAN secretariat in Indonesia's capital Jakarta, rights groups wonder whether the Vietnamese official will move to strengthen human rights via meaningful consultation with civil society in the region following the adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in November.
They ask whether Minh can push for greater rights for the region when his home government shows no sign of polishing its rights record.
"Well, when a person becomes the ASEAN Secretary-General, he serves ASEAN's interest, he doesn't serve national interest," said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a regional expert on political and security issues at the ASEAN Studies Centre of the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS).
“That is stated in the ASEAN Charter,” said Termsak, who retired last year after a two-decade stint at the ASEAN secretariat. “Also in the charter, you'll find a provision saying that governments cannot influence the Secretary-General in his performance of duties.”
If ASEAN provisions are an indicator, Minh may also have a mandate to push for regional attention over Sombath’s case.
Based on the terms of reference of the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), which is the groups' central but non-binding rights mechanism, the Secretary-General can bring “relevant issues" to the attention of the panel and "concurrently inform the ASEAN Foreign Ministers of these issues.”
But Termsak cautions that AICHR is only a “consultative inter-governmental body”.
“It is not supposed to enforce human rights protection in any ASEAN member State.”