Asian democrats meet to plan united front

8 December 2003

A group of prominent pro-democracy activists allied in their push for greater freedoms across Asia gathered in Singapore to discuss strategies to form a stronger united front.

The one-day closed-door meeting, organised by the Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia, included Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy, Malaysian political activist Tian Chua and Debbie Stothard, a long-time campaigner for democracy in Myanmar.

Singaporean politician, Chee Soon Juan, chairman of the three-year-old alliance, said the group wanted “to see what we can collectively do” to press for greater freedoms and human rights in the region.

The alliance also voiced its support for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, led by Nobel prize laureate Aung Sun Syuu Kyi who remains under house arrest following a May crackdown by the military regime in Yangon.

“We have to be united because the dictators are united… they help each other,” Sam Rainsy told a news conference on Sunday ahead of their meeting.

Sam Rainsy, who is one of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s strongest critics, asked why democrat activists did not do more to help each other.

“I have expressed my solidarity towards Aung San Suu Kyi many times,” he said.

Sam Rainsy and other delegates to the meeting said the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar was a symbol of struggle for greater freedoms in the region.

They urged the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to step up pressure on the junta, which has ruled Myanmar for four decades.

“(The Myanmar junta) is a symbol of political repression by autocratic regimes in Asia and it is outdated,” Chua, who has spent time in Malaysian jails without trial for his political activities, said on Sunday.

“Despite the promises that have been given by ASEAN governments… there have been no serious efforts that (are) committed to see through a speedy resolution to these issues.”

ASEAN has resisted pressure from Western nations to take a tougher stance on Yangon and has expressed support for the junta’s democracy “road map”.

But Sam Rainsy said the junta’s plan for democracy was a public relations exercise and called on ASEAN to change its policy of engagement with the generals that run the country.

“The military regime is just trying to buy time and we can be disappointed again,” he said.

Other critics have slammed the junta’s “road map” because it does not mention Aung San Suu Kyi or any timeframe for reform.

Sam Rainsy also called on the international community not to be distracted by the military junta’s public announcements, and instead focus on the plight of Myanmar’s citizens.

“They should concentrate on the fact that people suffer human rights abuses and they are now in dire poverty,” he said.

The Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia initially planned to hold a public forum in Singapore to discuss the Myanmar issue but authorities in this tightly controlled city-state rejected their application for a permit.

A press release placed on the alliance’s website last month said the public forum had intended to discuss the Singapore government’s heavy investments in Myanmar.

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