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Regional efforts needed to push for democracy

Originally appeared in The Jakarta Post

September 30, 2010

All eyes are now turned to Indonesia as one of the few countries in the region believed to be capable of taking the lead in helping bring about change in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Experts and Myanmarese activists agreed during a discussion here on Wednesday that Indonesia, which would chair ASEAN next year, should use its chairmanship to form an agenda on Myanmar, which was scheduled to conduct widely anticipated elections in November.

They also said that through ASEAN, Indonesia should ask for assistance from China and India to put more pressure on the military rulers in Myanmar.

China and India, which have interests in Myanmar’s energy resources, choose to keep silent over the lack of democracy and the human rights abuses in the restive country, despite international expectations of their participation in concerted efforts to uphold democracy in Myanmar.

“I believe it’s important for Indonesia to invite other ASEAN countries to form ASEAN’s [strategy] to push for change and democracy in Burma,” Centre for Strategic and International Studies executive director Rizal Sukma said during a dialogue organized by KBR68H radio’s international news program Asia Calling.

Such an agenda, he said, was reasonable as Myanmar had been a thorny issue for ASEAN’s internal performance and in ASEAN’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Rizal said the time was ideal for Indonesia — whose “high profile is on the rise” as claimed by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono — to conduct public advocacy campaigns and invite all elements in Indonesia and other ASEAN countries to help the Burmese people.

He added that ASEAN’s policy of non-interference was expected to be more flexible in this matter, citing an example in 2008 when Myanmar was hit by Cyclone Nargis.

He said the government  allowed in global aid packages after being persuaded by Indonesia.

However, Rizal said, it would be hard to involve China and India in efforts to bring the country to democracy because they feared that a transitional period in Myanmar would be followed by instability, which would hurt their business interests.

Burma Partnership coordinator Khin Ohmar said there were some problems in expecting China and India to join pro-democracy efforts.

“Over the years we see all these players play each other. Why does ASEAN have to do something about Burma, where is China? China has to do something about it. And [finally] no body wants to take the lead,” she said.

“China is not going to start no matter what. China will probably come to us if it sees [the efforts] as a strategic partnership, like the [one] it has with Indonesia [who is] China’s strategic partner politically and economically.”

Indonesia and other countries, Ohmar said, would probably need to have a “very aggressive diplomatic engagement” in dealing with Myanmar’s rulers.

“We can’t just have an engagement to appease the regime. We have to really hit hard on that door,” she said.

“Indonesia has to tell them, ‘look, we’re not going to recognize your election or the results of the election. If you do this, we will [take certain measures]’.”

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