Saturday, October 30, 2010

Silence on Burmese election's credibility gap bodes ill for Asean

It was interesting to see how Asean leaders would react to meeting just 10 days before the planned election in Burma on November 7. There were three different views expressed at the 17th Asean summit.

he biggest support for Burma came from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. He was the only leader who hailed the upcoming poll, which has been condemned as a sham election by most of the international community. During the dinner meeting on Thursday, Hun Sen applauded Burma for holding an election even though the country continues to face crisis and problems related to minorities. He even mentioned that if Cambodia had been faced with a similar political crisis, an election would not be an option. With UN assistance, Cambodia held its first national election in July 1993.

At the other end of the scale, the Philippine's President Beningo Aquino III and Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa emerged as the two most critical voices of the Burmese election. Aquino was the only leader to make it clear, in his maiden meeting with Asean leaders, that dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi must be freed along with other political prisoners, whose number is estimated at 2,000. It was a powerful statement coming from the young president at this crucial moment when other Asean leaders seem to suffering "compassion fatigue".

With Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yodhoyono's absence from the summit, Marty has assumed centre stage in commenting on the situation in Burma. At the dinner, Vice President Boediono, who sat in for the Indonesian president, was silent on Burma. Therefore, Marty's comments received wide media coverage. He reiterated two important points concerning the November 7 election and its aftermath.

He said that there is a creditability deficit in the Burma's poll and called for action on Burma. Looking beyond the election, he said ways must be found to promote national dialogue and national reconciliation programmes. This so-called election-plus policy represents Jakarta's approach to Burma as it prepares to assume the Asean chairmanship in January. Indonesia has to convince its partner countries next year that this path should be adopted as Asean policy.

Burma's creditability deficit could be linked to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's intervention. He urged Burma to work together with Asean to bridge the gap of expectations within the international community. Abhisit has been very cautious in taking the middle path in his comments on Burma, knowing full well that Thailand does not have the luxury of distance from a country with which it shares 2004 kilometres of porous border and the fallout of its numerous problems. In talks after his arrival here on Thursday, Abhisit pointed out to Aquino that Thailand has over three million migrant workers, and in some areas, the majority of labour comes from Burma.

Both Thailand and Indonesia are on the same page in looking beyond the election at what Asean should do to promote national dialogue and the process of national reconciliation. They are also interested in helping Burma to further integrate with the Asean and the world community. The two countries have much at stake in seeing stability in Burma - one as the next Asean chair, and the other as a neighbour country.

That explains why Asean is attempting at the 11th hour to increase its own creditability by offering to send an Asean team of poll observers to Burma. The regime's non-compliance with Asean norms and the scheduled sham election have already tarnished the grouping's good standing in the world. Some Asean countries believe that Burma might eventually agree to the latest offer because its Election Commission has said it would allow UN agencies and foreign missions to visit a polling station. Asean missions in Burma would coordinate this visit and report back to the Asean Secretariat.

But Asean wants to include its chief, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, as part of the delegation of poll observers along with Asean diplomats residing inside Burma. He will report directly to the Asean leaders.

As of press time, Burma has not responded to this latest offer from Asean. Judging from lack of comment on Burma from most Asean leaders in Hanoi, it seems obvious that the November 7 election will be a fait accompli. The best indicator is that Asean leaders failed to apply pressure or follow up on their foreign ministers' demand for an Asean team of poll observers.
The Nation, Bangkok

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