At the helm of ASEAN, Burma needs authentic change

Burma or Myanmar has received a new great reward on 10 October for its over-the-top political changes, taking the wheel of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) even with critics’ warnings that the step was hasty. A long time ago, friendless rogue was properly granted the rotating chair of the ASEAN routinely for 2014. It won the seat at the end of the group’s summit in Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei.

When Burma/Myanmar became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian nations in 1997, many countries criticized ASEAN leaders because of its questionable human rights records.

Myanmar has suffered under military’s ruthless ruling since 1962. The regime has earned a reputation as one of the world’s worst human rights violators. It brutally suppressed pro-democracy movements in 1988, during the Depayin conspiracy on May 30, 2003, and the Saffron Revolution in September 2007, as well as many other sporadic crackdowns.

It was in 1976 in the Thailand’s Department of Foreign Affairs building in Bangkok, the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) came into existence on August 8, with the signing of ‘Bangkok Declaration’ by foreign ministers of five original member countries namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.

The five foreign ministers are considered the organization’s ‘Founding Fathers,’ and they are Adam Malik of Indonesia, Narciso R. Ramos of the Philippines, Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia, S. Rajaratnam of Singapore, and Thanat Khoman of Thailand. The ‘Founding Fathers’ envisaged that the organization would eventually encompass all the countries in Southeast Asian region.

Following the founding of the organization, Brunei Darussalam became the sixth member of the ASEAN when it joined on January 7, 1984, barely a week after the country became independent on January 1, 1984. It would be a further 11 years before ASEAN expanded from its original six core members.

Vietnam became the seventh member in July 28, 1995, and Laos and Myanmar joined two years later in July 23, 1997. Vietnam would become the first Communist member of ASEAN. Cambodia was to have joined the ASEAN together with Laos and Myanmar, but was deferred due to the country’s internal political struggle. Cambodia finally joined on April 30, 1999, following the stabilization of its government.

Joining of Cambodia brought the completion of ASEAN-10, by which constituting almost all the countries in the Southeast Asia region.

The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia, was signed at the First ASEAN Summit on 24 February 1976, which declared that ASEAN political and security dialogue and cooperation should aim to promote regional peace and stability by enhancing regional resilience. Regional resilience shall be achieved by cooperating in all fields based on the principles of self-confidence, self-reliance, mutual respect, cooperation, and solidarity, which shall constitute the foundation for a strong and viable community of nations in Southeast Asia.

The Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had started facing the first strong challenge from the international community due to Myanmar’s human rights violations on 30 May 2003. The Association was called on to address human rights concerns in the region, including allegations of grave human rights violations at Dapeyin in Sagaing Division of Upper Myanmar, where the country’s charismatic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, then General-Secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD), and her entourage were ambushed by the military junta’s goons and killed more than 70 innocent people. From that day on, Aung San Suu Kyi and her chief lieutenant U Tin Oo and many others were arrested and kept incarcerated for several years.

As international pressure piled up, ASEAN has to review its non-interference policy. In a departure from the ASEAN policy of “non-interference”, the organization issued a statement calling for the early release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD members during the 36th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) (held on 16, 17 June 2003) in Phnom Penh.

ASEAN’s concern followed a Myanmar junta-backed attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of other political activists, where scores of people were killed or injured.

The 36th AMM’s statement says, “We discussed the recent political developments in Myanmar, particularly the incident of 30 May 2003. We noted the efforts of the Government of Myanmar to promote peace and development. In this connection, we urged Myanmar to resume its efforts of national reconciliation and dialogue among all parties concerned leading to a peaceful transition to democracy.”

Myanmar, which is internationally condemned for political and human rights abuses, including the detention of the Nobel Peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is due to take the alphabetically rotating chairmanship of Asean in 2006. The United States and the European Union, which have imposed economic sanctions on the country, have been pressuring the regional grouping to block its chairmanship.

Filipino Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo at the Cebu retreat predicted that he expected “vigorous debates” over Myanmar amid continued pressure from the West. Romulo also spoke out Manila’s position that Myanmar’s ruling junta should implement promised democratic reforms, release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, give access for the drawing of a democratic constitution and allow the U.N. special envoy to visit the country showing cooperation with the world body.

In June 2005, the Indonesian Parliament’s Commission on Defense and Foreign Affairs issued a resolution urging the government to boycott the ASEAN meetings if military-ruled Burma or Myanmar is allowed to take over the chairmanship. Indonesia’s parliamentarians are urging their government to support the resolution, which the parliamentary commission passed.

Malaysian and Philippine legislators, along with pro-democracy groups, have also opposed Myanmar’s chairmanship, warning that ASEAN could lose credibility.

Following ‘the 7 November 2010 election’, the junta released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest on 13 November. Then President Thein Sein’s government took the office in March 2011. Built upon the military drafted 2008 Constitution and the undemocratic elections in 2010, Thein Sein’s government has continually beleaguered by criticisms of state impunity and military supremacy.

Although the new government did not stop systematic human rights violations, other ASEAN leaders said they had no objections in principle but urged Myanmar to improve its human rights record leading up to 2014.

Myanmar was originally scheduled to chair an ASEAN summit in 2006, but it skipped its turn to chair because of widespread criticism of its human rights record and negative response to implement political reforms. However, President U Thein Sein Government has been reinforcing its troops in several regions where ethnic armed groups said are their territories. Armed forces reinforcements have been reported in Kachin State, Shan State and Karen State in the country since June 2011.

Sporadic armed clashes has been going on recently between the junta’s troops and armed ethnic groups such as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO/KIA), the Shan State Army–North (SSA-North) and Shan State Army-South (SSA-South).

Consequently, Myanmar has been continuing war against the ethnic minorities who are defending their basic civil rights including self-determination. If ASEAN leaders support offering the chair to Myanmar in 2014, they must pressure U Thein Sein’s government to stop the unjust war on the ethnic people. They ought to push Myanmar to end the civil war ahead of 2014.

Accordingly, they must press on President U Thein Sein to initiate putting into practice the words made in his inauguration speeches without hindrance. The ASEAN leaders particularly need calling for a total amnesty for every political prisoner in the country and the arrangement of an all-inclusive political dialogue in quest of reconciliation.