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Asian and European Leaders Should Heed Calls for Caution in Myanmar and Place Human Rights and Peace at Center of ASEAN Agenda

By ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus  •  October 25, 2012

Concerns over the viability of various peace initiatives and the hopes of securing long-term peace and stability in Myanmar should be placed high on the agenda of the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Laos next month, the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) said today.

The 9th Asia-Europe Meeting Summit or ASEM 9 will be held on 5 – 6 November 2012 in Vientiane, Lao PDR under the theme: “Friends for Peace, Partners for Prosperity”.

Considering the theme of the meeting it is imperative that concerns about fragile ceasefires and the threat to peace and stability in Myanmar posed by potential major development projects in restless ethnic areas be placed high on the agenda of the meeting. AIPMC remains concerned that opportunities for securing genuine peace in Myanmar could be lost if the Myanmar government and foreign governments supporting peace initiatives do not address concerns being raised by the communities affected by the violence and the non-state armed groups with whom they are working to secure an end to decades of conflict in the Southeast Asian nation.

Asian leaders have an opportunity and a responsibility to put peace, security and human rights before profit and power, and should use their positions of leverage to support the Myanmar government to enter into genuine political dialogue with non-state armed groups as a pre-requisite for large-scale developmental aid.

“We are very concerned. The political reforms taking place in Myanmar continue to elude the ethnic communities, who have long suffered abuse and discrimination under Burma’s military, while international reengagement with Myanmar, both political and economic, continues to move ahead.” said Eva Kusuma Sundari, President of AIPMC and Indonesian Member of Parliament.

“The ASEM 9 meeting offers a great opportunity for European and Asian leaders to sit down and really work out a coherent and effective strategy that continues to support the reform process but also ensures the long-term political and economic stability of the country – which means prioritising the best interests and needs of the people of Myanmar.”

AIPMC has been speaking with a wide range of civil society organisations and human rights observers, as well as those working in peace-building and conflict resolution. Chief among their concerns is that an influx of foreign development aid and major industrial investments without a genuine peace dialogue could derail recent achievements and fragile ceasefires, fuelling human rights abuses and causing considerable harm to prospects for national reconciliation.

Research suggests that people living near large-scale development projects are far more likely to report human rights abuses than those who do not. And land grabbing by the military and its cronies is already on the rise, in anticipation of a forthcoming financial windfall from foreign investment. There are insufficient mechanisms in place to protect people’s rights, and at present, it is almost impossible to ensure investments in Myanmar are ethical and meet even the most rudimentary of international standards.

Recent steps, such as the United States’ decision to lift restrictions on international financial institutions lending to Myanmar and announcements from Japan, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and others of plans to flood the country with money to fund development projects should be cause for concern rather than just celebration. While Myanmar is certainly in need of development aid to help mend the damage left by years of military dictatorship and resultant international sanctions, it must be done properly. A negotiated political settlement with non-state armed groups is a necessary prerequisite to financial and development aid, not the other way around.

“You don’t have to look far for the examples. In Kachin State now you can see fighting is growing in intensity, largely related to a desire for control of land and lucrative natural resources. The people are suffering. Just look at a map and see where the fighting is taking place anywhere in Burma and you’ll see that clashes are more prevalent around major development projects, be they gas pipelines, roads, dams or mines,” said Kraisak Choonhavan, AIPMC Vice President and former Thai senator.

“Is it really in the local people’s interests to just go bulldozing into these fragile areas? I really doubt the sincerity of anyone who says it is. It’s a money game and people want to profit from the land and the people. But it doesn’t have to all be negative – it isn’t too late to get things right.”

AIPMC is urging those responsible for backing these development projects to work with the ethnic representatives, civil society and community-based groups, and the government of Myanmar to lay the groundwork for development by achieving an agreed roadmap to peace and national reconciliation first.

“It can’t be done the other way around. It just won’t work,” added Kraisak.

The plight of the stateless Rohingya minority must also be placed on the agenda of the ASEM 9: to ignore the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Western Burma would be unforgivable. The Muslim Rohingya continue to suffer greatly under state-sanctioned persecution. Those who have not been burned out from their homes remain as virtual prisoners and tens of thousands are displaced, living in unbearable conditions. The Rohingya are human beings but are not treated as such – the previous military regime stripped them of their basic rights, and Thein Sein’s new government must be pressured to return those rights to them.

AIPMC is aware of the widespread animosity directed towards the Rohingya from among Myanmar’s Buddhist population – but the government must take responsibility for its role in fuelling this hatred and act immediately to end the sectarian violence in Western Myanmar and help build a peaceful, multicultural society.

“The Rohingya are in grave, grave need of help and the Myanmar government as well as the international community must be pressured to answer to the humanitarian calls. Indonesia, ASEAN, the world – we, all of us, cannot sit by and watch attempted genocide taking place. The problems are complex perhaps and the issues sensitive, but we must act now before it is too late and we regret our indecision. Naypyidaw cannot be further ‘rewarded’ for its reforms while it continues to persecute an entire race of people within its borders,” Eva Kusuma Sundari said.

Furthermore, AIPMC also urges Asian and European leaders to discuss the widespread concerns over ASEAN’s Human Rights Declaration, due to be signed into force next month. European leaders should voice concern to their ASEAN counterparts over the charter’s contents and drafting methods.

“In its current form, the declaration in fact serves to further restrict human rights of the ASEAN people, rather than uphold them, and in some parts contravenes rights guaranteed to all citizens of nations signed up to various United Nations Human Rights charters and the Geneva Conventions,” said Son Chhay, AIPMC Vice President, Chair of the Cambodian AIPMC Caucus and Cambodian Member of Parliament.

“These articles should be amended and brought in line with other international human rights conventions. ASEAN’s first human rights charter should be a positive day, not one in which we continue to lament the disconnect between those in power and the people they are supposed to be representing. Beyond this, ASEAN really needs to work towards putting into a place a credible mechanism for enforcement of the charter – without it, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, regardless of its faults, will do little to ensuring the rights of ASEAN peoples are better protected than they are at present.”

The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration is due to be adopted at the 21st ASEAN Summit, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 18–20.

For further information and interview requests please contact Ismail Wolff on +66 816430009, or by email at info@aseanmp.org

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