President Obama is under pressure to make human rights a key part of the agenda when he sits down with leaders from Vietnam and the nine other ASEAN countries in California today and tomorrow.
Members of Congress and human rights group have highlighted growing abuses in the region and warned that the summit at the Sunnylands Centre could bestow legitimacy on unelected and abusive leaders.
35 members of the House of Representatives wrote to President Obama saying that he should continue to press the leaders on their records and keep engaging with human rights and civil society organisations in the countries.
“Vietnam, a one-party state, continues to jail human rights activists and suppresses religious freedom, workers’ rights, free speech, and freedom of the press,” said the letter, which also drew attention to abuses in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Brunei.
Vietnam’s outgoing prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, leads the Vietnamese delegation to the summit at the Sunnylands Centre, which underlines the growing strategic and economic importance of Southeast Asia for the United States.
The region is key to Washington’s much discussed “pivot”, or rebalancing, towards Asia – widely perceived as a bid to counter the economic and military might of China.
Some fear that the US will ease pressure over human rights and democratic reforms as it seeks partners in its strategic contest with China.
“President Obama knows that human rights are under assault in Southeast Asia; the question is whether he’s going to say or do something about it,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
“The risk is that the Sunnylands summit will empower and embolden ASEAN leaders who have been responsible for jailing journalists, cracking down on peaceful protesters, and dismantling democratic institutions after coups,” he said.
Vietnam has enjoyed particular favour from Washington, surprising many with its inclusion in negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
Censorship, threats and torture
Ties between Vietnam and the United States have warmed rapidly as the former enemies respond to what they see as growing Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea.
“Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam and President Choummaly Sayasone of Laos preside over one-party authoritarian states that deny basic freedoms and use censorship, threats, and torture to maintain their party’s hold on power,” said a statement from Human Rights Watch.
It warned that such leaders should not be permitted to gain legitimacy from their meeting with President Obama.
The Congressional representatives noted in their letter that the United States and ASEAN launched a strategic partnership in November 2015 which
highlighted “a shared commitment to strengthening democracy, enhancing good governance and the rule of law, [and] promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
They noted that despite increasing economic and strategic ties, there had been a marked lack of progress, and in some cases a deterioration, on human rights in the region.