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Timid ASEAN Still Fails on Burma Issue

Originally appeared in Cairns Magazine

April 8, 2010

Guest Comments by the Burma Partnership Secretariat

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-governmental Commission of Human Rights (AICHR) held its first meeting here from March 28 to April 1. Delegates discussed the rules of procedure by which they will operate and a first five-year work plan, both of which were to be taken up at the 16th ASEAN Summit in Vietnam.

Civil society from across 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, executive director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia).

Civil society groups demand that the rules of procedure be made public and that consultation be held to incorporate feedback in the final draft. ASEAN’s unwillingness to engage civil society in establishing the AICHR shows that the region lacks a full commitment to creating a people-centered ASEAN as outlined in its charter.

On Burma, ASEAN member states take their usual position of watered-down concern. Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya has said he’d press the Burmese junta to open the country’s elections to all political opponents and ethnic minorities.

After a recent visit to Burma, Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa said he told Burma’s prime minister that “inclusivity, openness and transparency are important” in elections. He said they discussed Indonesia’s transition to democracy and that he hoped it would be useful to Burma.

In a move that shows where true interests lie, Vietnam’s prime minister also has visited Burma, signing seven contracts and joint agreements, but not discussing the junta’s elections.

ASEAN and its member nations are major trade partners and neighbors directly affected by the Burmese regime’s mismanagement, and they’re forced to deal with regional insecurities due to outflows of refugees, drugs and diseases from the problematic neighbor. They need to take stronger steps to push the Burmese junta toward genuine democracy.

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