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“People-Oriented” ASEAN Undermines Civil Society Efforts at Regional Conference

By Burma Partnership  •  May 9, 2011

The theme of this year’s ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum 2011 (ACSC/APF) was, as it turned out, ironically “Claiming a People-Centered ASEAN for a Just Global Community.” Despite the determined efforts of civil society groups throughout the region, as the events of the week transpired it was clear that the ASEAN leaders had re-claimed ASEAN for itself, rather than the people.

Beginning with an inspiring keynote video message from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that received a standing ovation from regional civil society, the week ended with a shocking undermining of civil society, with ASEAN leaders actively controlling what should have been an open and transparent opportunity for dialogue between the leaders of ASEAN and the people.

Burma’s pro-democracy civil society participated in a number of workshops, public forums and discussions, raising issues of ongoing human rights violations and a lack of genuine democratic change in Burma despite the November 2010 elections. ASEAN civil society stood with the activists from Burma, warmly welcoming the video keynote speech by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi with a standing ovation and supporting their recommendations to the regional bloc in the final statement. However, the team met with strong resistance from the regime-backed delegation, as well as ASEAN leaders, undermining the efforts of genuine civil society at the conference.

In a national caucus to determine who would represent Burma’s civil society in the Interface dialogue with ASEAN governments, the regime-backed delegates refused Aung Myo Min, Director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma and Coordinator of the Task Force on ASEAN and Burma. The pro-democracy civil society delegates did not accept the regime-appointed Police Colonel Sitt Aye as their representative, as they had participated in a consultation process prior to the ACSC/APF as laid out by the decision-making committee for the Interface, in which Aung Myo Min had been selected by 79 civil society organizations. With no agreed upon representative emerging from the national caucus at the ACSC/APF, the Interface committee called on Burma not to send Col. Sitt Aye with the Anti-Narcotics Association to the dialogue, but rather, to leave the seat empty.

Civil society representatives worked together to pressure ASEAN and Burma not to send Sitt Aye to attend the meeting on behalf of the country’s civil society over Aung Myo Min, as the Police Colonel did not meet the criteria decided upon by the organizers that all representatives “must come from civil society organization, NGOs, or mass‐based organizations.” ASEAN leaders nevertheless ignored civil society and proceeded with the Interface, with the participation of Col. Sitt Aye, recently appointed as the head of President Thein Sein’s legal advisory team.

Thai civil society faced a similar battle when their government put forward the name of a representative. Unlike Burma, Thailand allowed the representative chosen by civil society to participate at the last minute, demonstrating an effort to respect the voice of Thai civil society.

In his keynote speech at the ACSC/APF, Indonesia Vice President Dr. Boediono said, “To achieve ASEAN integration, we have to continue to interact regularly with the people.” However, ASEAN failed to interact with the very people it claimed to be so important, and undermined civil society’s efforts from the very beginning, initially pressuring civil society to submit the names of the representatives well in advance to be vetted by the government leaders. It is disappointing that ASEAN, rather than engaging with genuine civil society, pushed away those representatives with whom the leaders did not want to speak. Further, ASEAN sought to gag civil society by refusing to address the topics most important to the people, opting rather for the less contentious issue of health.

ASEAN has a track record of silencing and ignoring civil society. In Thailand in 2009, Khin Ohmar, Coordinator of Burma Partnership and Foreign Affairs Secretary of the Forum for Democracy in Burma, was rejected from participating in both Interfaces – the first time along side her Cambodian counterpart, and the second time with her Cambodian, Singaporean, Laotian and Philippino colleagues. Burma similarly appointed Col. Sitt Aye as the Burma civil society representative. In 2010, Vietnam did not allow the interface to take place at all. Civil society had hoped that Indonesia, as a country with a recent and successful transition to democracy, and current chair of ASEAN, would uphold the region’s stated democratic principles in the Charter by conducting an open and frank interface dialogue between ASEAN governments and civil society representatives.

ASEAN still has the opportunity to change its reputation by not awarding Burma the chairmanship of the bloc in 2014. In the final statement from the ACSC/APF, civil society called on ASEAN to refuse Burma the chairmanship unless the nominally-civilian government meets several necessary minimum benchmarks that demonstrate it is capable of governing the country in a transparent, democratic, and rights-based manner. These minimum benchmarks are:

  • The cessation of attacks on ethnic communities;
  • An immediate halt to all human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law committed against civilians;
  • The immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners;
  • An end to censorship;
  • Inclusive tripartite dialogue, including a review of the 2008 Constitution.

Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stated, “ASEAN leaders do not object in principle… But [Burma], which is a focus of world attention, is expected to continue progress on democracy so when it becomes chair it does not generate negative views,” and suggested that the bloc would make the decision at a later date. ASEAN must investigate that Burma is meeting these benchmarks and ensure that the country is economically stable and politically ready to take on the chairmanship of the regional bloc. If Burma continues along its current path of human rights violations and economic mismanagement, it is sure to compromise the vision of an integrated ASEAN community by 2015.

As regional civil society, we have seen momentous change such as the fall of dictatorships and the rise of democracy in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. We must continue to stand in solidarity with one another and fight for the basic principles of democracy and human rights for all the countries of ASEAN. As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in her keynote speech at the ACSC/APF, “Let us look forward to the day when it is the peoples of ASEAN who decide what shape our region is going to take.”

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This post is in: ASEAN, Blog

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