When Asean foreign ministers at their recent retreat in Lombok, Indonesia, endorsed the political manoeuvres of Burma's military regime and called for an end to Western sanctions, the message was clear: Asean means business.
This message disappointed those who thought Asean might mean something else as well, such as good governance promotion and human rights protection. On Burma, Asean has placed profits over principles. If Asean wants to ensure real progress - not only for Burma but for Asean itself - it needs to prioritise democratic ideals and start challenging the military regime to deliver real change.
In Lombok, Asean foreign ministers cited Burma's November 2010 election and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest as "sure signs" toward democracy and cause for reviewing the policy on sanctions. It is hard to believe that anyone, let alone Asean leaders, actually thinks these events point to true reforms.
The State Peace and Development Council's (SPDC) authoritarian exercise to fill a new parliament with the old regime of military officers, associates and cronies wasn't a real election by any standard. The military backed Union Development and Solidarity Party (USDP) won an absurd 76 per cent of contested seats through various forms of well-documented fraud, including the widespread abuse of advance votes to manipulate results. In some areas, reported turnout exceeded 100 per cent of eligible voters. Authorities announced winners in constituencies where elections had not been held. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's claim that the election was "conducive and transparent" simply has no basis in reality.
Likewise, excessive praise for Aung San Suu Kyi's release requires ignoring basic facts. With the arbitrary term of unjust house arrest set to expire anyway, the SPDC used the opportunity to deflect criticism of the fraudulent election and build support for the new civilian military regime. Aung Suu Kyi's repeated calls for dialogue remain unanswered. Her continued freedom is not guaranteed. The SPDC's calculated move indicates no interest in national reconciliation and no evidence of the rule of law democracies require.
Asean has embraced the SPDC's big lie, and it looks worse than silly. It looks money hungry. Asean member states already profit from business deals with Burma's regime. In November 2010, Italian-Thai Development Company signed a US$8 billion development deal on the Dawei deep sea port project in Tenasserim Division. Singapore provides over 20 per cent of Burma's imports. At the end of 2010, trade between Burma and Vietnam was expected to reach $160 million, a 60 per cent increase over 2009.
Asean nations stand to increase already considerable and growing gains should barriers to trade and investment be lowered.
In the name of business, Asean seems willing to accept the harsh realities of military rule. The SPDC has devastated the economy for personal gain, detained thousands of prisoners of conscience, and tortured and killed democracy activists and ordinary citizens.
Civilians in ethnic states continue to be particularly at risk. Decades of armed conflict in eastern Burma have left half a million civilians internally displaced, with more than 140,000 in camps in Thailand. Now, violence triggered by the November election has caused the largest influx of refugees into Thailand in more than 20 years. Over 8,000 people continue to seek shelter in Thailand with no end to the latest fighting in sight. The authors of a recent report documenting human rights abuses in Chin State claim the evidence could amount to crimes against humanity.
There is a legitimate debate to be had over the effectiveness and value of specific sanctions. However, this debate must address the facts, and not the SPDC's fantasy of rigged votes, empty gestures and superficial reforms. The focus must be ordinary citizens, and not business interests. The goal must be Burma's genuine democratisation, and not Asean's economic integration. Profit motive and wishful thinking should not drive the discussion.
Asean's call to end sanctions does not meet these standards. Instead, the neglect of SPDC abuse and backing of SPDC deceit threatens its own credibility and eases the pressure on Burma's generals to step down.
It's time for Asean to place human interests over economic interests. This shift can enhance Asean's legitimacy and capacity as an institution upholding democratic norms. It also gives Burma's citizens a better chance at inclusive governance.
Asean should base recommendations on Burma on clear and publicised benchmarks, including tripartite dialogue, cessation of armed conflict in ethnic areas, and the release of Burma's more than 2,100 political prisoners. Asean should express an openness to cooperate with the SPDC, ethnic nationality groups and democratic forces to implement these actions.
Asean needs to show the SPDC and the world that when it comes to democracy and human rights, it means business.
Special to “The Nation” Bangkok by Khin Omar coordinator of the Burma Partnership network, which aims to promote democratic development in Burma.