By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Dec 22 (IPS) – For nearly 30 years Cambodians have grappled with a question that no one in the country could answer with certainty: will the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime face justice for the genocide they perpetrated on their own people in the mid-1970s?

The wait may be over in the New Year. Events through 2007 suggested that the special war crimes tribunal established to try the Khmer Rouge leaders for killing nearly 1.7 million men, women and children is expected to open in 2008. Significant in this regard was the arrest this year of five major leaders of that extreme Maoist movement that ruled the country during 1975-79.

The hunger for justice among ordinary Cambodians, who lost relatives to Khmer Rouge brutality, was evident in late November when large crowds gathered at the special court on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to hear the bail hearing of Kaing Khek Eav, also known as ‘Duch.’ He headed the notorious Toul Sleng prison, where nearly 14,000 people were tortured before being executed. Duch’s bail application was rejected by the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal.

But such events are rare on South-east Asia’s political terrain. Acts by most of the ten governments in this region during the year confirm that a greater priority is placed on state security than human security. And those who campaigned for human rights and political and civil liberties were often at the receiving end of rough, and at times brutal, measures unleashed by elected and non-elected governments.

‘’Human rights have deteriorated across this region in 2007. Even the few signs of hope have vanished,’’ Anselmo Lee, executive director of Forum-Asia, a Bangkok-based regional rights lobby, told IPS. ‘’Governments are still interested in protecting themselves at the expense of the rights of their people.’’

Consequently, activists like Lee are pursuing a wait-and-see approach to judge the move by the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-member bloc of the countries in the region, to improve its human rights record through a new regional charter. At a summit in Singapore in November, government leaders backed the new ASEAN constitution’s call to protect and promote human rights and to create a regional human rights body.

‘’The inclusion of human rights in the charter and the plan to create a regional human rights body are positive developments. They offer a window of opportunity,’’ says Lee. ‘’But we have to wait and see how serious this language is and how effective the new human rights mechanism will be.’’

ASEAN’s members include Burma and Thailand, which were under the grip of military juntas, Singapore and Malaysia, which are one-party states where opposition voices are kept in check through harsh laws, and Brunei, which has an absolute monarchy.

The region also accounts for Laos and Vietnam, which have repressive communist regimes; and Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines, which have varying shades of democracy hampered by a culture of impunity that has enabled abuse of power by some quarters, including the military and officials in government.

Military-ruled Burma, in fact, emerged as a human rights embarrassment for the region, following a harsh crackdown of peaceful street protests in September. The anger in some South-east Asian capitals was palpable as officials, normally known for bland diplomatic statements, opted for sharp language to criticise their regional neighbour.

Vietnam escaped a similar rebuke despite Hanoi unleashing the police on anti-government protestors in Ho Chi Minh City in July. Thousands of uniformed and plainclothes policemen were used to crush a movement led by farmers demanding compensation for lands that were seized by officials for new ‘development’ projects.

Malaysia, one of the region’s more affluent countries, did not take too kindly to rare protests by the country’s ethnic Indian minority in November. Their complaints of economic, educational and cultural discrimination were met by police using batons and tear gas. Kuala Lumpur accused the leaders of this marginalised community of having ‘’terrorist’’ links and arrested them under the country’s harsh Internal Security Act, a British colonial-era relic that enables the authorities to keep detainees behind bars indefinitely.

The Philippines, on the other hand, was the subject of worry among human rights monitors for the spate of extra-judicial killings that continued unabated through the year. In November, a special U.N. investigator released a report that accused the country’s armed forces of killing leftist sympathisers in an effort to wipe out communist insurgents and left-wing activists.

The death toll in 2007 was 68 people, a dramatic drop from the 209 victims who were murdered in 2006 in that archipelago. At the beginning of this year, Filipino human rights groups like Karapatan revealed that over 830 people had fallen victim to extra-judicial killings since 2001, when the current president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo began her term in office.

Indonesia, an emerging beacon of democracy after ending a 30-year-long dictatorship in the mid-1990s, had a mixed record in trying to deepen its human rights culture. Jakarta won some praise by human rights groups for progress on two international human rights treaties, the 1996 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The region’s largest country took steps to implement both documents this year.

Yet Indonesian human rights activists castigated their government for dragging its feet on investigating rights violations and for failing to go after perpetrators while marking World Human Rights Day on Dec. 10. ‘’We can still see a lot of impunities; there’s no significant improvement in human rights protection in the country,’’ Soetandyo Wignjosoebroto, a leading human rights activist, was quoted as saying during the occasion in an issue of ‘The Jakarta Post’ newspaper.

And the prospect of the region having a better record in the New Year appears remote because governments are reluctant to broaden the language of human rights, says Sinapan Samydorai, president of Think Centre, a Singapore-based rights lobby group. ‘’There is very little human rights education in the South-east Asian schooling system.’’

‘’It is a way of preventing people to know what their rights are,’’ he added, during a telephone interview from the city-state. ‘’And I don’t mean only political rights, but labour rights, economic rights and the rights to information.’’