Democracy in Burma will Strengthen ASEAN

Published on March 27, 2010

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Jakarta Globe – March 26, 2010

The goal of an emerging regional alliance, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is to develop itself like a European-style single market by 2015. The bloc has a market of more than 530 million people but accounts for only 6 percent of world exports.

The 10-member association includes Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, Burma (Myanmar), Laos and Cambodia.

Leaders of the bloc are scheduled to meet at the 16th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi from April 8 to 9. The meeting is expected to discuss the promotion of regional connectivity and strengthening cooperation between ASEAN and its partners.

The international outrage arising out of the recent announcement of electoral laws in Burma, one of ASEAN members, is also likely to be discussed, either formally or informally.

The election law announced on March 10 prohibits anyone convicted of a crime from being a member of a political party. It prevents hundreds of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi who is the general secretary of National League for Democracy (NLD).

While many politicians and student leaders had been imprisoned in recent years, Suu Kyi was convicted of violating the terms of her house arrest by briefly sheltering an American who swam uninvited to her lakeside residence in August last year, and was subsequently sentenced to 18 more months of house arrest.

The laws announced on March 11 deprived Suu Kyi and other political prisoners of voting rights. Anyone convicted of crimes of barred from the polls. The law also formally invalidated the 1990 general election result, saying that the 1989 election law under which those polls were held was repealed by the new legislation.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 general election, is a target of the military junta. The election law presents an option whether the party should register for the upcoming election by expelling its convicted leaders or face de-registration.

The development of these lopsided electoral laws entailed the U.N. Security Council to hold closed-door talks on March 24. The meeting, called by Britain, marked the first time the council discussed political developments in the military-ruled Burma since last August.

Mark Lyall Grant, Britain’s U.N. envoy, said many council members voiced concern on Burma’s electoral laws “which 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.”

The U.N. secretary general also discussed the latest developments with Group of Friends of Myanmar at the U.N. headquarters on March 25. The group includes Australia, Britain, China, the European Union, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.

While many in the international community have expressed outrage and concerns at the conduct of the Burmese military junta, ASEAN, as a bloc, still maintains reticence.

Of the 10 members, only the Philippines and Indonesia have openly commented on the electoral laws. On March 11, Alberto Romulo, foreign secretary of the Philippines, 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.”

It was ASEAN which had been critical of the Western nations’ sanctions and isolation policy toward Burma. Since September of last year, the United States government has embarked on engagement policy. However, there has not been any tangible commitment from ASEAN members 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 deny of fundamental political rights in Burma. Standing up to tackle problems of its members will improve the bloc’s image and capability as a respectable international organization.

Any pragmatic initiative of ASEAN in attempts to find a democratic solution in Burma in no doubt will garner the support of the good offices of the U.N. secretary general. Until a genuine democratic society where the rights of every ethnic nationality are established within its member state, ASEAN is unlikely to see a successful and thriving regional bloc.

ASEAN is not asked to expel Burma from the regional bloc, but rather urged to engage the country (not just the military leaders) to help find solutions to the longest armed conflicts in the entire Southeast Asia.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published in five continents (Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America).

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