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People of ASEAN Stand Up To Be Counted

Originally appeared in Myanmar Freedom Daily

March 25, 2014

The ASEAN Civil Society Conference / ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF) 2014, held in Yangon, Myanmar, on 21-23 March, and coorganised by long-standing Myanmar advocates to ASEAN, namely Burma Partnership, Task Force on ASEAN and Burma, and Women’s League of Burma, together with 80 other civil society organizations (CSOs) and community based organizations (CBOs),can be hailed as a great success as well as a historic event.

Not only was it the first ACSC/APF to be held in Myanmar, it was also the highest attended ACSC/APF since the ACSC/APF first took place in 2005, with over 3,000 participants.

It was a great opportunity for people of all ethnic nationalities from across Myanmar – CSOs, CBOs, rights activists networks, and grassroots activists – to meet people from their own countries and from others around the ASEAN region as well as from Timor Leste and beyond, to share their concerns, and above all, to demonstrate the strength and solidarity of civil society in Myanmar and in ASEAN.

In addition, a number of solidarity activities were carried out by rights activists: an exhibition by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and the Former Political Prisoners League on the lives of political prisoners, demonstrations by people from Latpadaung copper mine, and other activists fighting for their confiscated land; environmental activists protesting against the Salween Dam; sex workers voicing their struggle for a protective law; student and youth activists campaigning against hate speech; and LGBTIQ community members championing their rights in a display of celebration and color, to name but a few.

There was also a solidarity night featuring a cultural show, whereby participants expressed their solidarity with each country’s civil society delegates by sharing their culture with one another.

After a day of high profile plenaries on Myanmar’s transition, globalization, and a broad sweep of the current situation for the benefit of the people of ASEAN, workshops began in earnest on day two.

A statement was drafted based on the conclusion of five plenaries and thirty five workshops, and was presented to the media on Monday, 24 March 2014.The statement highlights concerns and recommendations, and will be forwarded to ASEAN country leaders ahead of the ASEAN summit in May.

Among a plethora of statements and recommendations regarding peace, justice and human rights, development, and democracy, perhaps the most pertinent words regarding Myanmar today came from National League for Democracy (NLD) patron, U Tin Oo who stated that “admitting one’s errors is painful, but it is an important step for reconciliation. We cannot let our ego overtake the welfare of future generations. We should be brave enough to face the past with honesty, so that we can work together to solve the urgent problems of this country.”

Despite this positivity, certain sinister activities harked back to the dark days of direct military rule. Dr May May Pyone, Chair of the ACSC/APF2014 said “now is not a time for mistrust and fear, but a time for trust building and positivity”, yet the heavy presence of Special Branch, the intelligence gathering body of the Myanmar government, whose apparatus and modus operandi have scarcely changed since the military regime, highlights the deep distrust that the Myanmar government still has of civil society. Furthermore, during the past nine months of preparation for the ACSC/APF, the Myanamar government tried to influence the process by various means including infiltrating or assigning their people to the relevant committees.

However, it was not only the Myanmar government that placed intelligence units at the convention: during a workshop featuring prominent human rights defenders from Cambodia, Cambodian intelligence officials were also present in the room.

Perhaps one of the most anticipated issues was of how religious violence in Arakan (Rakhine) State, and the persecution of the Rohingya, was going to be addressed. Unfortunately, despite a question from the audience on the third plenary of day one, the panellists speaking about Myanmar’s transition did not answer the question, and civil society members otherwise seemed reluctant to raise the issue during workshops and plenaries.

Indeed, reports of monks from the extremist 969 movement intimidating speakers at one of the workshops, imploring the speakers not to use the term “Rohingya”, were also of grave concern.

The Rohingya situation, one of the most serious issues in Myanmar and ASEAN over the last two years, was very much the “elephant in the room” during this year’s ACSC/APF.

In spite of such methods, the 2014 ACSC/APF was a display of strength and solidarity of ASEAN civil society. It was a triumph for freedom of assembly, association and expression in a country long known as a denier of these human rights.

Although there remains distrust of civil society on the part of the Myanmar government, particularly as regards sensitive issues such as ethnic persecution, Myanmar civil society and their counterparts across ASEAN can stand proud today.

The authors, Alex Moodie and Robert Finch are Political and Human Rights analysts with the Burma Partnership.

View the original article here. 

This post is in: ASEAN, News Clip