UNITED STATES President Barack Obama at the end of US-Asean Summit in California Tuesday called upon Thailand to return to civilian government as well as countries across the region to respect and protect human rights of their citizens.
“We continue to encourage a return to civilian rule in Thailand,” Obama said at a press conference at the end of the summit. A video clip of his remark is available on the State Department’s Facebook page.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha who staged a military coup to topple the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014 was in the US for the summit since early this week.
General Prayut had an opportunity to have a brief conversation with Obama during the summit but details of the encounter have not yet been released. He left the meeting place at Sunnylands Centre in California for Thailand immediately after the end of the meeting.
The issue of human rights and democracy was not the main focus of the summit and Washington did not single out any country during the two-day meeting or in the joint statement issued after the summit.
“I made it clear that the US will continue to stand with those across Southeast Asia who are working to advance the rule of law, good governance, accountable institutions and the universal human rights of all the people,” he said at the press conference.
“Across the region we continue to stand with citizens and civil society to continue defending their freedom of speech and assembly and of the press. No one including those who are in political positions should be ever detained or in prison only for speaking their mind,” he said.
Regarding Myanmar whose outgoing President Thein Sein cancelled his attendance at the last minute, Obama said “We continue to engage with the people of Myanmar as the new president is selected, and there is work to implement a ceasefire agreement for national reconciliation.”
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the November election last year. She is banned by the military-sponsored constitution from taking the administration’s top job as her children hold foreign nationality. A power trade-off is ongoing and Myanmar’s parliament will begin the presidency selection process in the middle of March.
The rare standalone summit in the US was held to reaffirm Obama’s policy of rebalancing to Asia and the US-Asean strategic partnership. “I believe this summit has put the US-Asean partnership on a new trajectory that will carry us to even greater heights in the decades ahead. America’s foreign policy rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, including Southeast Asia, will continue to be a foreign priority of my presidency,” said Obama, who leaves office at the end of his second term next year.
Obama has made seven separate visits to the Asean region. He attended three out of four US-Asean summits when the regional grouping hosted the summit in the region. The US president will visit Vietnam in May on his way to a Group of Seven meeting in Japan and will visit Laos when Vientiane hosts the East Asia Summit in September. It will be his first visit to Vietnam and he will be the first US president to visit Laos.
Of the 10 Asean leaders who travelled to the US for the summit, leaders of “authoritarian nations”, notably Thailand and Cambodia, were fiercely criticised by the American media and their own citizens who lived in exile in the US, for their tough rule and poor human rights practices. The Los Angeles Times singled out Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Cha-o-cha, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Laos President Choummaly Saysone, Myanmar President Thein Sein and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in its article headlined “A crowd of dictators is coming to Southern California”.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Hun Sen, Najib Razak and Philippine President Benigno Aquino extensively updated their countrymen about their activities in the US via social media.
Lee’s Facebook, in particular was packed with information about his week-long trip to the US, which also took him to San Francisco where he met Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s Tim Cook besides having lunch with the CEOs of PayPal (Dan Schulman), Qualcomm (Steve Mollenkopf) and Applied Materials (Gary Dickerson), all of whom have a major presence in Singapore.
“We talked about new technologies and global trends, and Singapore’s Smart Nation ideas. Elon Musk gave me a brief but exhilarating ride in the Tesla Model S P90D, and I also got a spin in Google’s self-driving car,” Lee posted on his Facebook.Gist of Sunnylands Declaration
• The importance of shared prosperity, sustainable, inclusive economic growth and development
• Ensure opportunities for all of peoples, through strengthening democracy, enhancing good governance and adherence to the rule of law, promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms
• Respect and support for ASEAN Centrality
• Shared commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes
• Shared commitment to maintain peace, security and stability in the region, ensuring maritime security and safety, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflights and other lawful uses of the seas
• Shared commitment to addressing climate change and developing a climate-resilient, environmentally sustainable Asean
• Shared commitment to promote security and stability in cyberspace consistent with norms of responsible state behaviour
• Support for the advancement of the Asean community
• Shared commitment to strengthen people-to-people connectivity through programs that engage Asean and American citizens
• Shared commitment to promote a global partnership for sustainable development