Monday, August 8, 2011

23 Years after 8-8-88 — It Is Finally Time For ASEAN to Get It Right on Burma

Twenty-three years after the democracy uprising of 1988 in Burma was brutally crushed, the world has gone through remarkable changes. In particular, Asean’s role in economic cooperation, peace and security as well as human rights and humanitarian issues has grown dramatically.

But the people of Burma, which was renamed Myanmar by the military junta after the uprising, have faced continued suppression by their own government even after last year’s so-called general elections and promised reforms. The dedication and sacrifice of the people who bravely stood up against the military regime 23 years ago remains commendable. In keeping with their people’s desire for a free and democratic homeland, Burma’s government needs to come to terms with its brutal past and stop its ongoing crackdowns against the political opposition and ethnic groups.

The Aug. 8, 1988 demonstrations — which came to be known as the 8-8-88 uprising ¬— brought more than one million Burmese people into the streets led by student activists protesting against the ruling junta’s demonetization of the currency. The movement began in March of that year and lasted until soldiers were brought into the streets in September to end the brief flowering of democracy.

The protests brought down Ne Win, a longtime dictator, but the new rulers who replaced him brutally suppressed the protests, killing an estimated 10,000 people, imprisoning more and causing a generation of students to flee the country.

Freedom of political expression in the country has also worsened. Anyone can be punished or imprisoned for directly or indirectly criticizing the government. There are more than 2,000 political prisoners held in inhumane and harsh conditions. Half of them are activists and students arrested after the 8-8-88 incidents. Many died in prison under mysterious circumstances.

More than two decades later, in 2010, the military government staged an election, which barred the leading opposition figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, and all other political prisoners, from participation. The junta-supported party predictably won over other competitors.

The 2008 constitution and 2010 election were designed to guarantee the military’s continuing control of the government. Supposedly part of a “road map to democracy” drawn up by the regime, sham elections can do nothing to prevent a future uprising, like 8-8-88 or the 2007 Saffron Revolution led by Buddhist monks. Sadly, the government has a free hand to react violently against citizens who dare demand democratic rights, just as it has done in the past.

After the elections, the situation has been no better. Crackdowns are under way against armed ethnic groups in order to secure a series of mega-development projects. Severe human rights violations have already occurred in connection with these projects including forced labor, land confiscations, torture, murder and rape, causing an influx of refugees to neighboring countries.

Meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has for years held the position that the crisis in Burma is a domestic issue; the body closes its eyes to the fact that people are fleeing their homes and spilling into neighboring territory. Members of Asean support Burma’s membership in the group and so do nothing about the situation. The conflicts inside Burma also seem to be ignored by countries investing in the many mega-projects inside the country.

Now that it has requested to take its turn as the chair of Asean in 2014, the government of Burma needs to prove to the world that it upholds real democratic standards and principles by taking accountability for past human rights violations, particularly the suppression of the 8-8-88 uprising.

The government must disclose information on thousands of political prisoners detained after the uprising. The government should publicly investigate the killings of thousands of people in 1988 and the deaths in custody of prisoners arrested after the uprising. It should answer the most important question asked by families of the victims and the international community: “Where are they and why did they die?”

It should also unconditionally and immediately release all remaining political prisoners. It must deal with ongoing human rights violations and take real steps to end the violations by opening genuine dialogue with ethnic communities and treating the victims of past abuses fairly.

If the Burmese government cannot accomplish these tasks by 2014, Asean member countries have the responsibility to bar the country from chairing the bloc — the region’s reputation and credibility would be greatly harmed by supporting a member country as its leader that promotes dictatorship and the violation of basic human rights.

The abuses that followed 8-8-88 should be taken as a lesson. Asean cannot tolerate such violations in the future.

Today marks 23 years since the uprising — a day that is also the 44th anniversary of Asean’s founding in 1967. Aug. 8, 2011 should be the moment for Asean to meet the most urgent needs of the region’s people by establishing a real mechanism to promote and protect freedom of expression and ensure that every member country respects this right. It is also the right day for Asean to encourage Burma to finally improve its political and human rights conditions — at least up to the level of other Asean countries. Only by doing so can Burma receive sincere recognition from the international community. If the bloc can reach this goal, not only will Burma be a proud member of the region but Asean would also take a significant step toward achieving a real “Asean Community.”

Finally, it is time for Asean to assist Burma in securing justice for past victims of human rights violations. It can do this by bringing the legal process to bear on the perpetrators and providing relief and comfort to victims and their families. This would be a huge step in the resolution of one of the world’s most shameful conflicts between a government and its people. Asean’s support for the call of the international community and the United Nations to establish a Commission of Inquiry into these crimes against humanity is a way to achieve the ultimate goal.

By Eva Kusuma Sundari president of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus and a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives.

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