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ASEAN Must Step Up on Human Rights and Burma

By Burma Partnership  •  April 5, 2010

The ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission of Human Rights (AICHR) held its first meeting in Jakarta from 28 March to 1 April. Delegates discussed the Rules of Procedure (RoP), the guidelines according to which the body will operate, and the first 5-year work plan, both of which will be taken up at the 16th ASEAN Summit that begins today in Hanoi. Civil society from throughout ASEAN gathered to raise important human rights cases, including that of Burma, only to be ignored by the new body. “As representative[s] of a human rights institution, the refusal to meet with civil society is in itself a contradiction of the spirit and principles of human rights,” said Yap Swee Seng, co-convener of Solidarity for Asian Peoples Advocacy Task Force on ASEAN Human Rights and the Executive Director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia). Civil society groups are demanding that the RoP be made public, and that consultations be held to incorporate feedback from civil society in the final draft. ASEAN’s unwillingness to engage civil society in the process of establishing the AICHR shows that the region is not fully committed to creating a people-centered ASEAN, as outlined in its Charter.

Despite Burma’s democracy and ethnic rights organizations, and the international community’s support for the National League for Democracy’s decision to not re-register as a political party, ASEAN member states have taken their usual position of watered-down concern. Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “We are disappointed that the new election laws have led to this result. This will make it harder for national reconciliation to be achieved.” Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya has said that he will be pressing the junta this week to open the elections to all political opponents and ethnic minorities. After his visit to Burma last week, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said he told SPDC Prime Minister General Thein Sein that “inclusivity, openness and transparency are important” in the process of holding elections. He said they had discussed Indonesia’s transition to democracy, and that he hoped it would be useful for Burma.

However, in a move that shows where their true interests lie, Vietnam’s Prime Minister also visited Burma last week, signing seven contracts and joint agreements, but did not discuss the junta’s elections.

As major trade partners and neighbors who are directly affected by the regime’s mismanagement, forced to deal with regional insecurity due to outflows of refugees, drugs, and diseases from their problematic neighbor, ASEAN must take stronger steps to pressure the junta to move towards genuine democracy while it still has the chance. ASEAN Foreign Ministers have the perfect opportunity to collectively pressure the junta during their dinner on 7 April at the ASEAN Summit in Hanoi.

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