The meeting, in the Thai resort of Hua Hin, was the first since the organisation formally signed a charter that mandates, among other things, the setting up of an independent human rights body as part of efforts to focus on civil rights hundreds of millions of people in the region.
“We need to make Asean more people-centric. Protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms is a key feature of our community,” said Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thailand’s prime minister and current Asean chair at the opening ceremony on Saturday afternoon.
“The establishment of Asean human rights body by the end of this year, the first ever of its kind in the region, will be a big step in this direction.”
Rights groups said that Saturday’s ultimatum from Burma and Cambodia, which has also been criticised for its human rights record, show they are already trying to undermine the agreement.
The Burmese and Cambodian civil society representatives reluctantly offered to withdraw and the meeting went ahead without them.
“The Burmese military regime and the Cambodian government have set out to deliberately sabotage one of the most important aspects of the Asean charter,” said Debbie Stothard of the pressure group Altsean-Burma.
The refusal of the Burmese and Cambodian authorities to engage with their critics will bolster sceptics who believe that the organisation has always put the principle of non-interference above its promise to better the lives of the 570 million people who live in the 10 member countries.
There have been grave doubts that all 10 Asean members, particularly Burma – which was severely criticised in a recent US State Department report for it human rights abuses – are fully committed to the process.
Burma was controversially brought into Asean in 1997 on the grounds that gentle regional engagement was more likely to change the country’s direction than ostracism. But the experiment has been largely unsuccessful, and Burma’s human rights record almost always threatens to overshadow the rest of the Asean agenda at their annual meetings.
Some observers say Asean’s problem is in the execution rather than the principle.
“If engagement is still the principle, you have to use the carrot and the stick, and I don’t see any stick,” said Bara Hasibuan, a Jakarta-based political analyst.
But there is evidence that pressure for human rights is growing at the highest level. Mr Abhisit, who chaired Saturday’s meeting with civil society, made a specific effort to meet the excluded delegates after it had finished, a clear signal that for some a commitment to human rights overrides the traditional prerogative for a show of unity.