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Burma Campaigners Demand Leadership from ASEAN

Originally appeared in Asia Calling

May 29, 2010

Despite growing condemnation  of their undemocratic tactics and allegations of gross human rights abuses, the Burmese military regime appears to be pressing ahead with plans to hold elections later this year.

The polls will be the first step in activating the controversial 2008 constitution and its expected that the junta will use them to legitimise its rule.

A group of  exiled Burmese leaders have begun a global campaign against the elections and this week they traveled to Jakarta to meet with Indonesian politicians.

They urged them to exert greater pressure on Burma, through the Association of South East Asian Nations grouping.

Asia Calling met with Khin Ohmar, the Coordinator of the Burma Partnership and began by asking her just what ASEAN can do to promote free and fair elections in Burma.

“ASEAN can do a lot. But ASEAN continues to remain in this ‘quote-un-quote’, ‘constructive engagement and non-interference policy’. But ASEAN cannot be in this non-inteference policy because Burma has already interfered in ASEAN as a whole, because of Burma’s spill over effects in terms of the refugees, migrant workers, drugs, HIV/AIDS, trafficking and this is all impacting the whole ASEAN stability and regional economic stability. ASEAN has to interfere in Burma’s politics, because Burma’s political situation must become stable in order for ASEAN to move forward. So what we are asking ASEAN to do is take a stand and pressure this regime to change its course; release all political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi; and stop attacks on ethnic nationalities and enter into dialogue and that is something that ASEAN can facilitate.”

Q: What role can Indonesia take in this, I mean it is taking on the Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2011, you obviously come here because you feel Indonesia is an important partner, for your movement. What can they do more specifically?

“Indonesia being the largest democracy in ASEAN, yes there is a greater leverage and Indonesia can play a very significant role. In the coming ASEAN Ministerial meeting Indonesia can make sure that Burma is on the formal agenda and come up with a very strong position, talking to the regime; unless they change the course of these elections and meet the essential conditions for the elections, ASEAN will have to say, we cannot accommodate you anymore. And there are many leverages they can take in terms of the economy. And being a member, the Burmese regime must abide by the ASEAN charter. They are now breaching the charters principles, which is to have good governance and democratic priniciples and protection and promotion of human rights.”

Q: ASEAN’s involvement is obviously important, but it could also be argued that the involvement or influence of China and India is almost more important. What do you need them to do?

“What has been lacking so far with the case with Burma is that there are a lot of economic interests by different countries, particularly our biggest neighbours China and India, they are competing with each other. China is extracting all of our natural resources under the current regime, China gets most. In term the current regime also gets a lot military and political support from China. But there is a possibility of the resumption of the civil war, not only on the Thailand border side but also on the China border. China has already experienced more than 30,000 refugees fleeing across the border to China last August. And they will see even more refugees coming if the fighting resumes between ethnic cease-fire groups and the Burmese army. Now the Burmese army is forcing the ethnic-casefire groups to enter into the border-guard force so all the ethnic groups have to give up their weapons and surrender to them, and that is not going to happen. And if that is the situation China is going to experience even more impact from Burma, and I don’t think China wants that. In order to prevent that China, by now also knows that they cannot alone work with the regime, they must work with the international community, and the regional players, including ASEAN. And therefore we need ASEAN to stand-up and reach out to China, together with the EU and the US.”

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