Suu Kyi verdict tests ASEAN’s resolve

Alistair D B Cook & Mely Caballero-Anthony
Asia Times Online

Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was found guilty on Tuesday by a Yangon court of breaking the terms of her house arrest and sentenced to 18 more months house arrest for harboring an American man who swam to her house uninvited.

This ruling is a signal to Southeast Asia and the international community that little progress has been made internally in Myanmar. It also reflects the limitations that the region has when trying to influence developments in the country.

The long road toward human rights

Local and international outrage has done little to influence the outcome against Suu Kyi. Once again it brings the focus of human rights back to Southeast Asia, and what the region is willing to do to resolve political questions surrounding Myanmar.

Against the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) goal of establishing an ASEAN security community, this ruling brings into question what tangible role the grouping will play in upholding human rights. Significantly, the ruling comes shortly after the signing on July 20 of the terms of reference for the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) at the 42nd ASEAN ministerial meeting in Phuket, Thailand.

It has been a long road to agreement on the AICHR, and its establishment could not come at a more crucial time for the people of Myanmar. The AICHR’s terms of reference were born in 1993 at the 26th ASEAN ministerial meeting in Singapore and the 14th general assembly of the ASEAN inter-parliamentary organization in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The joint communique of the 26th ASEAN ministerial meeting stated that members “agreed that ASEAN should also consider the establishment of an appropriate regional mechanism on human rights”. Subsequently, there were various track-two (unofficial) discussions on the idea of a regional human-rights mechanism. The ASEAN human rights working group was formally recognized as the region’s informal network on human rights.

In 2005, ASEAN’s leaders reached an agreement to draft a charter for the association. They later assigned an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to make policy recommendations. Human-rights advocates lobbied the EPG and a high-level task force for inclusion of the mechanism. At the end of 2006, the EPG recommended that a human-rights body be incorporated. This was subsequently included in the final draft of the ASEAN charter, which was signed at the 40th ASEAN ministerial meeting, in Manila, the Philippines in 2007.

The charter called for the establishment of a regional human-rights body but fell short of defining its mandate. A high-level panel was convened to formulate the terms of reference (TOR) of this body. The TOR was finally accepted, in a much watered-down form, at this year’s ministerial meeting in Phuket.

UN response to ASEAN

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, said on July 22 that the world body “strongly encourages ASEAN states to appoint commission members who are independent and impartial, and have proven expertise in human rights”.

This appears a loud call for an effective body to respond to the Myanmar challenge. Indeed, the verdict on Suu Kyi will put further pressure on ASEAN member states to implement the AICHR without delay, as it should tackle human-rights violations head-on when the world is watching.

A regional response to this verdict is necessary to signal to the people of Myanmar and the international community that ASEAN is serious about promoting the principles and values that it professes.

With the signing of the ASEAN charter, the association demonstrated that it was ready and willing to take concrete steps in further integrating as a region. More importantly, the signing of the ASEAN charter showed a regional normative shift by the grouping towards commenting on the internal dynamics of members. This was seen when ASEAN declared that it is committed “to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms”. The events in Myanmar put ASEAN’s credibility under close scrutiny by its citizens and the international community.

If the ASEAN charter offers a reflection of how the region carries out its business and its regional governance, then the ASEAN response to the guilty verdict on Suu Kyi needs to show that the charter works – and works well. But this trial has illustrated that the military regime in Myanmar is unable to carry out its responsibilities as outlined in the ASEAN charter and the terms of reference of the new AICHR.

The staging of this trial and the verdict that was passed are a clear signal to ASEAN of the contempt with which Myanmar’s military regime regards the agreements to which it is party.

Suu Kyi’s trial smacks of political expediency by a regime that fears democratic change ahead of a proposed election in 2010. The fact that this trial took place around the time that Suu Kyi’s current house arrest was due to expire illustrates this well.

A question of legitimacy

It is time for ASEAN to act decisively in accordance with principles of regional peace and security enshrined in the ASEAN charter and the terms of reference of the AICHR. This action will bolster the legitimacy of ASEAN as the guardian of the personal security of its citizens.

It remains to be seen whether ASEAN will step up to this challenge and whether its response will yield results. However, it is clear that if ASEAN does little to improve this situation, then its credibility will be further undermined. It will be difficult for the association to portray itself as providing regional solutions to regional problems.

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