Burma remains a black eye for Asean

There is one glaring issue within the community that has to be discussed, regardless of Asean’s customary pledge of noninterference in the affairs of member states — the lack of democracy in Burma.

Nehginpao Kipgen
The Jarkarta Globe

The goal of the emerging regional alliance represented by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is to develop itself into a European-style single market by 2015. The bloc should be a potent force, with a market of more than 530 million people, but it still accounts for only 6 percent of world exports.

Leaders of the 10-member bloc (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma) are scheduled to meet at the 16th Asean Summit in Hanoi from April 8-9. The meeting is expected to discuss the promotion of regional connectivity and strengthening cooperation between Asean and its partners.

There is one glaring issue within the community that has to be discussed, regardless of Asean’s customary pledge of noninterference in the affairs of member states — the lack of democracy in Burma. Governed by military dictators since 1962 and with ethnic minority communities long chafing under central government control, the nation is easily the most pressing human rights issue in the region.

The international outrage arising out of the recent promulgation of an electoral law in Burma has put the issue again squarely on the international — and regional — agenda.

The election law announced on March 10 prohibits anyone convicted of a crime from being a member of a political party. In so doing, it prevents hundreds of political prisoners from participating in coming national elections, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the general secretary of the National League for Democracy and the acknowledged leader of the opposition in the country.

While many politicians and student leaders have been imprisoned in recent years, Suu Kyi was most recently convicted of violating the terms of her long-standing house arrest by briefly sheltering an American who swam uninvited to her lakeside residence in August. She was subsequently sentenced to 18 more months of confinement.

The election law deprives Suu Kyi and other political prisoners of their political rights. Anyone convicted of a crime is barred from the polls, a move that is a apparent attempt to prevent democracy leaders from contesting the polls against military-backed candidates. The law also formally invalidated the result of the last general election in 1990, saying that the election law under which those polls were held was repealed by the new legislation.

The NLD, which won 392 seats in the 492-member assembly in the 1990 polls but was never allowed to take power, is a target of the military junta. The election law offers the NLD an impossible choice: If it is to register for the upcoming election, it must expel its leaders who have been convicted by the dictatorship — including Suu Kyi.

When this lopsided electoral law was made public, it led to a closed-door session in the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday called by Britain, the first time this year the council discussed political developments in Burma.

Mark Lyall Grant, Britain’s UN envoy, said council members voiced concern over Burma’s electoral laws, saying they “fall well short of what the international community expected in a free and fair process and fell short of the expectations set up in previous [council] statements.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also discussed the latest developments with the Group of Friends on Burma at the UN headquarters on Thursday. The group includes representatives from Australia, Britain, China, the European Union, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam. Afterwards, he said it was “disappointing that we have not seen much progress” toward democracy in Burma.

While many in the international community have expressed outrage and concern at the conduct of the Burmese military junta for many years, Asean, as a bloc, still maintains its formal silence.

Of the 10 members, only the Philippines and Indonesia have openly commented on the new election law. On March 11, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo said: “Unless they release Aung San Suu Kyi and allow her and her party to participate in elections, it’s a complete farce and therefore contrary to their roadmap to democracy.”

Asean has been critical of Western nations’ sanctions and isolation policy against Burma, arguing that constructive engagement is the better path. Since September last year, the US government has embarked on a limited engagement policy, but there has not been any tangible commitment from Asean to help resolve the decades-old conflicts within its own member state.

As a responsible regional bloc, Asean needs to break its silence on human rights abuses and the denial of fundamental political rights in Burma. Standing up to tackle the problems of its members will improve the bloc’s image and capability as an international organization.

Any pragmatic initiative led by Asean to find a democratic solution in Burma no doubt will garner the support of the UN secretary general and Washington and enhance the credibility of Asean itself. Until Burma recognizes the rights of every ethnic minority and every citizen to have a real say in their choice of leaders, Asean is unlikely to be a truly successful and thriving regional alliance.

Asean is not expected to expel Burma from the club, but is rather urged to genuinely engage it — and not just its military leaders — in order to find solutions. One hopes Asean will find the courage to address the task.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher of political conflicts in Burma since the 1950s and is general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum.


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