Burma’s assumption of the ASEAN chair this year was as a significant milestone for its reformist government, eager to cast off its reputation as the ten-country bloc’s human rights bête noire.
For Burmese civil society organisations, the ASEAN chairmanship has brought with it opportunities unimaginable in the recent past. Starting on Friday, Burma will host the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF) for the first time, marking the tenth occasion the event has been held.
Taking place each year before the first of two annual ASEAN summits, the ACSC/APF aims to bring together civil society actors from around the region to facilitate dialogue on transnational and country-specific issues, guiding the regional agenda towards establishing what its organisers refer to as a “people-centred ASEAN.” Over 1,200 individuals – from all ten ASEAN countries as well as East Timor – are expected to attend the three-day conference, held at the Myanmar Convention Centre in suburban Rangoon.
Burma joined ASEAN in 1997 under the bloc’s controversial policy of “constructive engagement,” perceived by many outside observers to be commercial ploy at the expense of the country’s citizens. Regional civil society networks responded by pushing Burmese issues to the top of their collective agenda, urging the bloc to take action on the country’s dire human rights record and incessant civil strife.
But despite this historical focus on Burmese issues within the APF, Burmese voices have historically been underrepresented, claims Aung Myo Min, a prominent human rights activist and member of the forum’s steering committee. “In the previous APF, we did not have the chance to send many people from Burma; most people were from exile groups, because it was easier for them to go and they were free to speak out about the situation,” he said.
Despite the Burmese government’s traditional wariness of civil society, Naypyidaw has shown a surprising tolerance for the APF, going so far as to send Aung Min, the minister of the president’s office and a key figure in ongoing peace negotiations, to deliver the forum’s keynote address. “We have [had] to work hard to convince the authorities that this is a parallel event led by civil society,” Aung Myo Min said. “We have had regular meetings with the concerned government agencies. That helped us a lot to take all kinds of misunderstandings and misinformation away. This is a really good sign.”
Other governments have not always been so hospitable. The 2012 iteration of the forum, held in Phnom Penh, was marred by interference from the Cambodian government, which applied behind-the-scenes pressure on the hosting venue to shut down workshops, and delegated a government-linked organisation to run a rival event simultaneously. In 2010, representatives from a number of NGOs were denied visas to attend that year’s event in Vietnam, coinciding with Hanoi’s assumption of the ASEAN chair.
Although the Burmese government retains legal means to stifle dissent, a new law outlining its legal relationship with civil society may, in fact, prove to be one of the most progressive in the region. Last July, the government proposed a bill that would require all civil society organizations to register with the government, giving it effective veto over freedom of association, and prescribing stiff penalties for transgressors. But in October, a revised version of the Association Act was widely commended by parliamentarians and civil society actors alike, and Aung Myo Min claims it will be passed into law soon.
The revised draft does not oblige local civil society organisations to register with the authorities, although international NGOs will be required to do so. All mention of punishment has been stricken from the final version. As far as Aung Myo Min is concerned, the new law is a positive development, as it will serve to facilitate cooperation between the government and civil society. “For local NGOs who want to run nationwide programs across state and division [lines], it’s better to register, because you get more urgent and immediate action [from the government] in case of emergencies,” he said.
Although the Burmese government might appear to have given the forum its unconditional blessing, freedoms of speech and association are still far from assured as Burma’s transition to democracy progresses. Ongoing conflict and repression targeting minorities and the poor tells a different story from the narrative of progress the government seeks to propagate.
Burma’s civilianised government is decidedly more fragile than its counterparts in Cambodia and Vietnam, and negative signals to the international community – like cracking down on foreign activists – could serve to undermine its hard-won legitimacy in the run-up to the nationwide polls scheduled to occur next year. As reforms consolidate, it is difficult to state with certainty what kinds of pressures Burma’s increasingly vibrant civil society will face moving forward.
“It’s not a happily-ever-after scenario; I think it’s going to be a reality check for most regional activists who haven’t been here yet,” an organiser, who asked not to be named, told DVB. “How far can we push the envelope without jeopardising [Burmese civil society’s] future safety?”