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Rohingya crisis and assault on Cambodian democracy take center stage during EU advocacy mission

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In late September and early October, a delegation of Southeast Asian parliamentarians travelled to Belgium for a series of meetings in Brussels, and to attend the Asia-Europe People’s Forum in Ghent. The delegation spent almost a full week in the country to strengthen relationships with the European Union institutions and fellow NGOs, as well as to raise awareness of the troubling human rights situation in Southeast Asia.

The delegation consisted of Charles Santiago (MP, Malaysia), Tom Villarin (MP, Philippines), Mercy Barends (MP, Indonesia), Mu Sochua (MP, Cambodia) and Wipaphan ‘Nana’ Wongsawang (a representative of the Future Forward party, Thailand).

The participants met with a range of stakeholders within the EU institutions during the Brussels leg of the mission (26-28 September). The delegation stressed a range of critical human rights issues in Southeast Asia, including the need to ensure accountability for atrocity crimes against Rohingya and other ethnic groups by security forces in Myanmar, and to restore democracy in Cambodia, where the government has dismantled the opposition and independent media. The Philippines was also discussed in detail, where thousands of people have been extrajudicially executed in the “war on drugs”, and the administration is intensifying a crackdown on dissent. As a major trading partner of the ASEAN bloc, the EU holds considerable political and economic leverage in the region – not least since many countries (including Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines) are recipients of various preferential trading schemes.

During a breakfast roundtable with Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) – including Ana Gomes and Barbara Lochbihler – the delegation heard how Southeast Asian and EU countries face many common challenges, including rising religious intolerance and authoritarianism. The lawmakers expressed their support for strong, recent resolutions on the human rights situations in Cambodia and Myanmar by the European Parliament, and stressed the need for continued joint engagement in both countries. Not long after the mission’s end, on 5 October, the European Commission announced that it was withdrawing the Everything but Arms trade preference from Cambodia due to “severe violations” and was considering similar action in Myanmar.

During a meeting with Heidi Hautala, MEP from Finland and a Vice President of the European Parliament, there was discussion around challenges facing democracies in both Europe and Asia ahead of the 10th Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership Meeting (ASEP 10) which coincided with the delegation’s visit to Brussels. At a roundtable with Brussels-based human rights CSOs, including Human Rights Watch, the delegation heard about ongoing advocacy efforts around the European Union, and discussed opportunities for future collaboration.

The APHR members also had the opportunity to meet ambassadors from several countries to the Political and Security Committee – a body dealing with the EU’s foreign policy and security issues – including from Austria, Ireland, Sweden and the UK, as well as staff from the cabinet of Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council.

After three productive days in Brussels, the Southeast Asian lawmakers travelled to the northwestern Belgian town of Ghent to attend the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF). AEPF is a parallel event to the biannual Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) – a high-level summit of governments – set up to bring together NGOs and activists from the two regions. In Ghent, Sarah Jane Elago (MP, Philippines) and Kyi Pyar (MP, Myanmar) joined the APHR MPs as they met more than 400 people from 40 countries during the three-day conference.

The Southeast Asian delegation had the chance to take an active part in cluster meetings on topics ranging from climate change, to peace and security, to trade justice. APHR Chair Charles Santiago additionally moderated a panel discussion of parliamentarians from across Asia and Europe during the AEPF’s final day to assess common findings and set out a way forward.