The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should address "critical regional challenges" and not shy away from "difficult questions," including those related to human rights. This was the challenge posed by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), a collective of regional legislators, ahead of an ASEAN summit in Manila this week. "The accelerating erosion of democracy and human rights protection threatens to undermine the progress of ASEAN integration," said Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian parliament. Santiago, chairman of APHR, said the growing number of human rights abuse cases in the region "yield a weaker regional bloc that fails to live up to its people-centered claim." In a statement, APHR warned that ASEAN's failure to face the "growing human rights crisis" in Southeast Asia "could threaten the sustainability and long-term success of the organization. ASEAN, a regional grouping that promotes economic, political, and security cooperation among Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Troubling trends
The parliamentarians noted "troubling trends" in the region, including religious extremism that is "increasingly being used for nefarious political aims." Santiago said civil society and opposition personalities in the region are also being harassed and imprisoned while marginalized communities are under attack from security forces. "The summit is a place where these issues can and should be discussed, debated, and ultimately responded to at the regional level," he said. The parliamentarians also expressed "concerns" over "increasing government restrictions" on freedom of expression and "rampant extrajudicial killings, most prominently in the context of the brutal drug war being waged in the Philippines." They also raised alarm over possible atrocity crimes in Myanmar, where the United Nations recently warned that crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing may have occurred. 'Prioritize women'
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Women groups in Manila, meanwhile, urged ASEAN leaders to endorse "pro-women policies and programs" during the three-day meeting. Jean Enriquez of the World March of Women expressed alarm over how Filipino women suffer "trauma, isolation, and economic helplessness that make them more vulnerable to prostitution." Jelen Paclarin of the Women's Legal and Human Rights Bureau blamed ASEAN leaders' "lack of attention and action" for the "pervasive culture of impunity in violence against women and girls" in the region. Zeena Manglinong of the Freedom from Debt Coalition said ASEAN countries enter into deals "that favor corporate interests" that have "adverse consequences" on workers, especially women. "Women's human rights and the concerns of various sectors of marginalized women must be at the heart of the ASEAN agenda," said Chang Jordan, spokeswoman of the group Philwomen. Duterte warned
Foreign affairs experts cautioned President Rodrigo Duterte from issuing comments that may damage existing ties with key partners. Edmund Tayao, a professor of political science at the University of Santo Tomas, said the president has to take note that "there are norms that are expected in the international discourse." Duterte is known for his profanity-laden tirades, especially when talking about his war against illegal drugs, which has been condemned by international human rights groups. APHR urged ASEAN leaders to "heed the voices and concerns" of civil society groups and ensure that human rights mechanisms are free from government interference. The summit, which opened on April 26, is the first of two annual meetings of ASEAN leaders in 2017.