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ASEAN’s Chance in Burma

Originally appeared in Asia Views Magazine

October 2, 2011

In the lead up to the next ASEAN Summit in Bali next month and the upcoming UN General Assembly Resolution on human rights in Burma, the regime in Yangon has been trying to win over the international community by taking some very calculated steps. They have held meetings with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, invited UN Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana to visit the country, and unblocked several foreign publications and websites.

This week, President Thein Sein took another calculated step and responded to the demands of environmental campaigners with the decision to suspend the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project on the Irrawaddy River. It is clearly in the regime’s best interest to halt the project now rather than run the risk of increased public mobilization against it. The Burma Rivers Network has welcomed the news, but insists that further action is necessary to make this a true victory. The network has called for China Power Investment to release an official declaration confirming the news and remove all personnel and equipment from the dam site.

While these developments have been welcome gestures from the regime, the regime must make more significant changes in order for the international community to be able to say that a transition to democracy is truly underway. When we consider the scale of brutality and human rights violations being committed as well as the ongoing civil war raging in many ethnic areas of the country, we can see that these recent developments have been little more than window dressing and do not amount to real democratic progress.

Genuine democratic transition will not be possible unless the regime addresses the more fundamental issues in our country, namely, ongoing armed conflict and associated human rights violations, the imprisonment of political prisoners, and the lack of genuine negotiations towards national reconciliation.

Since the sham elections last year, the 60-year long armed conflict in Kachin, Shan, and Karen States escalated significantly. Civilians in these areas continue to face atrocious human rights violations that may amount to crimes against humanity, including attacks against their communities, extrajudicial killings, rape, arbitrary arrest and detention, internal displacement, land confiscations and forced labour. As a result, at least 500,000 ethnic Karen, Karenni and Shan population are living as Internally Displaced Persons driven from their homes because of these human rights violations by the Burma Army. At least an additional 145,000 refugees have taken temporary shelter along border areas of Thailand. For all of them, there are no means to justice for these crimes. Democracy will not be possible in Burma until there is a national ceasefire between the Burma Army and all armed ethnic groups, negotiated collectively through their alliance, the United Nationalities Federal Council. The regime must also address the ongoing issue of impunity for human rights abusers.

Burma’s justice system is geared towards protecting those in power. Under Article 445 of the 2008 Constitution, the military general who committed war crimes, the chief of intelligence who arrested and tortured political dissidents, the army commander who used forced labor for construction projects; all of these characters would enjoy impunity, and be free to continue committing such heinous crimes without fear of being prosecuted or held responsible. This is in clear breach of international law, under which there is no amnesty for the most serious international crimes.

In light of the military regime’s lack of willingness and ability to investigate these crimes, the international community must now assume this responsibility. Failure to act would legitimize crimes against humanity and war crimes being committed and allow Burma’s regime to continue to commit those crimes unabated.

Democratic transition will also not be possible as long as nearly 2,000 political prisoners remain in Burma’s prisons, where they are often tortured, denied basic health care and kept in remote prisons far from their families. Burma’s Foreign Minister has told the UN that the regime is planning for a release of prisoners “at an appropriate time in the near future.” However, he failed to say when this might be and whether it would include political prisoners. Previous releases of prisoners have been overwhelmingly only criminals, and included only a small fraction of political prisoners. If the next release includes political prisoners, it will not be enough for only some to be released. All political prisoners must all be set free unconditionally, including those who have been imprisoned under false or tenuous criminal charges. They are part of the opposition in our country and their voices must be heard.

As a third step towards national reconciliation, the regime must also engage in tripartite dialogue. This must include ethnic nationality representatives, including armed groups, and the pro-democracy movement, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. These three steps are essential for a genuinely democratic Burma.

It is important to note that many of the regime’s recent steps have been taken since it requested to chair ASEAN in 2014 and the regional bloc decided at the last Summit in May to postpone making a decision. The timing of these steps suggests that the regime does indeed care what ASEAN thinks and is willing to make small concessions in order to get what they want, namely, the chairmanship in 2014.

ASEAN is therefore perfectly placed to encourage Burma to turn its words into actions, and take more meaningful steps towards democratic transition, including the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, the declaration of a nationwide ceasefire and beginning genuine tripartite dialogue.

These developments in Burma would also reflect positively on ASEAN and show the bloc’s commitment to democracy, peace, and human rights. They would also provide economic benefits and improve regional stability.

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa recently said that he would be keen to hear what civil society thinks about Burma taking on the chairmanship. I hope he will hear this: ASEAN has been given a unique opportunity and a very big bargaining chip with which to influence the regime to take stronger, more committed steps towards democratization and ending crimes against humanity, and should not waste.

Giving Burma the chairmanship now would be premature. This would only reward the regime for taking such unsubstantial steps, and fail to address the largest most fundamental issues facing our country. Furthermore, Burma would have no incentive to make any further positive changes in the country once the regime already has what it wants. By giving Burma the chairmanship, ASEAN would be allowing armed conflict to continue and legitimizing the crimes against humanity and war crimes being committed against the people of Burma.

On the other hand, if ASEAN withheld the chairmanship and Burma took these significant steps, the bloc would prove itself to the international community as an influential actor in the region.

This is the time for Mr. Natalegawa and ASEAN to show how serious they are about hastening change in our country, thereby proving how strong and committed the regional bloc could be when it comes to human rights.

Khin Ohmar is Coordinator of the Burma Partnership and Chairperson of the Network for Democracy and Development.

This post is in: News Clip