HUA HIN - An attempt by Southeast Asian leaders to prove their commitment to human rights backfired at their weekend summit, mainly due to Myanmar's military junta, analysts and activists said.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) had been hoping to use its annual gathering in Thailand to hold rare face-to-face talks with campaigners as part of its preparations for a planned human rights body.
But the threat by the prime ministers of Cambodia and Myanmar to boycott the talks if two campaigners were allowed to take part instead exposed the bloc's limitations, analysts said.
"It is truly sad that an organization known for 'talk' won't even talk to those working to expand freedom in the region," said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asian specialist at the Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
In the end, the two activists were barred from the dialogue.
"The pandering of ASEAN to its authoritarian members' demands over a simple dialogue with civil society groups shows how disingenuous the support of human rights is within the organization," she told AFP.
Human rights have been a perennial challenge for ASEAN in the 42 years since it was founded as a bulwark against the spread of communism. Its members now include a monarchy, a dictatorship and two communist states.
The bloc has repeatedly been pressed to use its influence to improve the rights situation in Myanmar but to little avail. Its soft approach contrasts with the sanctions imposed by Western nations, but neither have worked.
A push by ASEAN to get the rights issue onto its agenda would likely face continued opposition from Cambodia and Myanmar, due to the bloc's long-held principle in non-interference in each other's affairs, activists said.
"It is very clear in this case that the governments of Cambodia and Myanmar have basically sabotaged the efforts of Thailand," said Debbie Stothard, from the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, which refers to Myanmar by its former name.
Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva has been pushing hard for the creation of the rights body this year, as laid out under the group's landmark charter, which came into force in December.
According to a draft seen by AFP, in its current form the body has no powers to investigate or prosecute rights abusers and is packed with provisions rejecting external interference.
"We want to make it clear that ASEAN will not go far," if individual members can hijack the group's proceedings, added Soe Aung, deputy coordinator of the rights group Burma Partnership.
Myanmar's junta has been accused of committing widespread human rights abuses, including the extended detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and has been a constant thorn in ASEAN's side.
"As long as the changes do not take place in Burma, ASEAN will not change at all. Burma's human rights violations, continued arrest and imprisonment (of suspected dissidents) will not bring ASEAN any further," Soe Aung said.
"ASEAN must abandon its principle of non-interference. Until then this human rights body or ASEAN charter will not be effective at all."
ASEAN is comprised of more relatively developed countries like Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand as well as strong-arm ruled Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
The United States and Europe have long pressed ASEAN to use its influence to press for change in Myanmar.
Most recently, the junta has come in for criticism due to its treatment of refugees from the Muslim minority Rohingya.
Many have been rescued in Indonesian and Indian waters in recent weeks. Thailand's army has been accused of towing them out to sea after they washed up on Thai beaches, but scores are feared to have died.
Amnesty International's Donna Guest was unequivocal in what it would take for ASEAN's rights body to be taken seriously.
"To be worthy of its name, the body must be empowered to effectively address human rights in Myanmar."