Sunday, November 20, 2011

In a Premature Nod to Burma, Asean Misses a Chance to Drive Real Change

Last weekend, the Arab League voted to suspend Syria from its meetings and impose sanctions on the Damascus regime. The vote came after Syria ignored the regional institution’s calls for the release of prisoners, an immediate end to killings and violence and talks with opposition forces.

While the Arab League took such a strong decision, another regional group, Asean, has shied away from its responsibility to protect civilians and promote peace, security and justice in one of its member states.

On Thursday night, Asean heads of state officially granted the bloc’s 2014 chairmanship to Burma. The decision comes despite the fact that Burma’s military-dominated government has ignored repeated international appeals for the release of all political prisoners and even continues to deny their existence in the country, a denial repeated by Information Minister Kyaw Hsan in an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week.

Asean’s decision also failed to take into consideration that the regime has not taken any steps to end the longest running civil war in the world, but has instead deployed more troops in ethnic nationality areas, nor has it shown any willingness to engage in genuine and inclusive political dialogue with opposition forces in the country.

Asean has never been a strong promoter of peace and democracy in Burma. Even in 2006 when Burma was due to take up the chair, it was under pressure from the West and not Asean itself that Burma forfeited its turn after Western nations threatened to boycott the bloc’s meetings.

However, with Thursday’s decision, Asean has taken an even more deplorable position than their previous failure to be proactive in promoting peace in Burma. The bloc now appears to support the ongoing violence in Burma and the military-dominated government’s continued attacks on ethnic civilian populations and atrocious violations of their human rights. Their decision has sadly revealed to the world Asean’s true colors.

With this new decision, Asean is actually undermining itself. In 2014, when assuming the chairmanship of the regional institution, Burma will be in charge of representing and promoting Asean’s core principles, which are, according to the Asean Declaration, “To promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries of the region and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter.” A regime engaged in an internal armed conflict that has forced tens of thousands of refugees to flee to other Asean member states and that ensures impunity for those responsible for human rights violations cannot represent the institution without contravening Asean’s core aims and principles and thus damaging the reputation of the institution itself.

In an article that appeared in several publications this week, including the Jakarta Globe, Zaw Htay, director of the office of the president of Burma wrote, “President Thein Sein looks forward to trying to lead Asean much as he has guided Myanmar.” One year after the unfree and unfair elections of 2010 that brought Thein Sein to power, it is time to take stock on how has he guided Burma so far. The regime has made some small political concessions, but this year was mainly marked by a dramatic increase in the number of human rights abuses committed by the Burma Army. Asean cannot sincerely want Thein Sein to lead Asean in the same way.

It was from their posh surroundings in the tropical paradise of Bali that Asean heads of state decided to ignore the outrageous reality on the ground in Burma. In deciding to award the Asean chair to Burma in 2014, they have sent a clear message that the crimes against humanity and war crimes being committed by Thein Sein’s government, which violate international human rights laws, are of little concern.

All the while, Burma Army soldiers last week burned down some 50 homes in a village in eastern Kachin State. According to a report from the Democratic Voice of Burma, troops also attacked a local pastor and his pregnant wife. Human rights documentation groups receive reports of attacks like this on a daily basis, showing how the Burma Army systematically targets civilian populations in ethnic nationality areas. Women are gang raped, villagers tortured, killed, forcibly recruited and displaced and no one is held accountable for these crimes. Impunity reigns and the judiciary instead serves primarily as a tool of the military-dominated government to suppress political dissent with no regard for the rights of the accused, due process of law, or guarantees of a fair trial.

In reality, Asean failed to fulfill its responsibility to protect its civilian population; it failed to promote peace, security and justice in the region. It had a great opportunity to promote genuine change in Burma, but it now proved that little is to be expected from the regional institution. The regime will probably stop reforms now that it has received what it desired so strongly: the Asean chairmanship itself and the political legitimacy and international recognition that will come with this post.

With Asean’s failure, the last way to ensure that the chairmanship is not a blank check given to the regime is for Asean’s main partners to take a strong stance. The United States, Japan, Australia and the European Union should pressure the military-dominated government by making their participation in the 2014 Asean Summit conditional on concrete steps towards genuine democratic transition and national reconciliation.

These steps must include the immediate and unconditional release of all remaining political prisoners, declaration of a nationwide cease-fire with ethnic armed groups and entering into inclusive political dialogue with ethnic nationality representatives, and the pro-democracy movement led by Suu Kyi.

By Khin Ohmar coordinator of Burma Partnership and chairwoman of Network for Democracy and Development. Jakarta Globe

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