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20-26 February: ASEAN Leader’s Visit to Burma Unwittingly Shows Many Needed Steps

February 27, 2012

This past week, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan traveled to Burma where he met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, President Thein Sein and Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin. While ASEAN and its leaders tend to view developments in Burma through rose-tinted glasses, several of Surin’s comments during and after his visit illustrated just how many more steps are actually needed for there to be genuine reform in the country.

At a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand following his trip, Surin said, “If Myanmar is going to carry out its chairmanship successfully, many things need to happen within the next two years.” He elaborated that the country will need to invest in roads, telecommunications, hotels and internet systems for the thousands of national leaders, delegates and journalists that will attend.

What Surin failed to mention is that the regime will also have to take the much more difficult step of opening space for debate, especially when it comes to the civil society conference that is traditionally held alongside the ASEAN Summit. In previous years, these conferences brought together civil society actors from throughout the region to discuss important issues of social, economic and political rights in the host country as well as the region. These conferences were a forum for independent civil society groups and peoples’ movements to raise their concerns on these issues with ASEAN leaders, and call on them to commit to and comply with the ASEAN Charter in promoting and protecting human rights and the advancement of democratization in the region. However, Burma and regional civil society groups worry that Burma’s regime will not allow this process to happen as an independent process of the people, or that it will try to restrict participation or topics to be addressed.

Surin also reported that Thein Sein told him the country would “seriously consider” allowing observers from ASEAN member states to monitor an upcoming by-elections on 1 April. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has already said that the NLD’s campaign had “come across a few hitches”, illustrating an apparent need for monitoring of the entire election process. However, there are serious concerns about whether this is a role that ASEAN should take. ASEAN and its member states seem to have a vested interest in smooth by-elections since Western countries have suggested that the polls will be a benchmark to which the lifting of sanctions will be tied, a development that would clearly serve ASEAN’s economic interests. The people of Burma and the country’s fledgling democracy would benefit more from independent and international observers, rather than those trying to protect their own self-interest.

Echoing a major concern of many of Burma’s civil society organizations and international solidarity groups, Surin also stated in Bangkok that it would be “unrealistic” to expect that political changes in Burma can trickle down to its people. This was made very clear in the last week as the Burma Army continued to launch attacks against armed ethnic groups, notably in Karen and Shan areas where ceasefire agreements have been reached in recent months. It was also reported that the Burma Army continues to use forced child labour in Kachin State.

These cases show that real change for the people of Burma will require more than some preliminary steps towards reforms and ceasefire agreements. The international community, including ASEAN, must use what leverage they have to press Thein Sein’s government to take meaningful steps including the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, nation-wide ceasefire, troop withdrawal, end of attacks and abuses against ethnic communities, and inclusive political dialogue.

News Highlights

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi campaigns in Kachin State, calls for unity among ethnic groups and says that the lack of honesty and transparency among the people is prolonging armed conflict

Inside Burma

Union Election Committee lifts ban on the use of sports grounds for campaign events after NLD complains that their 14 February rally was cancelled

Parliament votes in favour of secret voting in election of village headmen, against President Thein Sein’s advice

Burma Army soldiers burn villagers’ rice stock in Waingmaw Township, Kachin State;
force underage boys to porter on the front lines against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA)

Fighting breaks out between KIA and Burma Army forces in Kutkai Township, northern Shan State

Shan State Army – South (SSA-South)’s Hsipaw township administrator Sai Ta Long and his wife are shot dead by Burma Army troops in local market; fighting breaks out between SSA-South and Burma Army in a village tract outside of Tachilek Township, on the Thai border

Ceasefire between government and the 5th Brigade of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army breaks down after fighting breaks out in Pa’an, Karen State

Karen National Union warns that regime’s business deals will add tension to ethnic peace plans

New Mon State Party signs a preliminary peace agreement with government’s peace negotiation team led by Railways Minister Aung Min

Anti-drug authorities say 22,432 hectares of poppy plants were destroyed between September 2011 and February 2012

Burma to launch a second global tender for six onshore oil and gas blocks

Regional

Speaker of the Lower House Thura Shwe Mann leads parliamentary delegation on visit to China; Foreign Ministry spokesperson says China hopes peace and stability will be brought to the country’s border with Burma soon

Japan hopes to reach an agreement to resume loans to Burma for infrastructure projects such as ports and railways

Massive fire rips through Umpiem refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border

International

UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for Burma, Vijay Nambiar, says that recent changes have been “important first steps to start addressing long-standing challenges” and highlights three priority areas for the government

British Foreign Secretary William Hague visits Burma, cautions that foreign supporters must not slacken pressure on the government while reforms are still underway

The United States urges government to lift all conditions placed on recently released political prisoners

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This post is in: Weekly Highlights