by Nava Thakuria, World War 4 Report

Burma's elevation as the "would-be chair" of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has irked many—primarily the pro-democracy Burmese and their sympathizers in Asia. Terming the recent initiative of ASEAN to grant Burma the 2014 chair as "premature as the authorities have failed to fulfill key promises of reform," a number of organizations argued that the "decision might even embolden them [the Burmese government] to continue committing human rights abuses with total impunity."

"We call for ASEAN to keep its options open on reversing its decision on Burma's chairing the regional bloc if the military-led government backslides on promises concerning human rights and democracy," said the statement issued by the organizations. They also asserted that ASEAN's decision to deliberately ignore the new war in Kachin state and escalation of military attacks in eastern Burma this year is a betrayal of its international and regional obligations to the wellbeing of ASEAN citizens. Southeast Asian leaders meeting in Bali for the 19th ASEAN Summit in November agreed to allow Burma to assume the chairmanship, and allow the country to host the annual meeting in 2014.

ASEAN's move comes one year after elections were held in Burma for the first time since 1990. The National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma's main opposition party, boycotted in protest of bureaucratic hurdles to candidate registration that assured a leading role to military-backed parties. Nonetheless, Burma has since then showcased some changes. As the military-ruled country was put under a semi-democratic regime, the government lifted the house arrest of opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Thousands prisoners, some of them NLD leaders, were also released from the jails. Recent reports from Rangoon reveal that Suu Kyi may contest a by-election in the coming days after completing formalities with the government.

The Burmese government led by the former general Thein Sein asked its pro-democracy activists in exile around the world to return to their country. Some of the exiles have reportedly returned, although many still have apprehension about the democratic commitment of the present Burmese regime.

The northeast of India, primarily the state of Mizoram, supports nearly 80,000 Burmese Chin people who have left their country fleeing repression. Some 20,000 other Burmese are living in India as laborers, domestic workers and petty vendors, suffering acute poverty and insecurity. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees officers in New Delhi has registered only few thousand Burmese refugees in India, facilitating some support to them. The Burmese government with its changing image wants the economic sanctions imposed by the US and various European nations to be lifted. Recently, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accepted an invitation from Burma to visit the country in the near future. US President Barack Obama announced at Bali that his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be visiting Burma in the coming days.

Nonetheless, the ASEAN decision to offer the chair to Burma invited criticism from various political observers who argued that the country should have been offered the opportunity only after the administration at Naypyitaw initiates significant democratic changes and improves its human rights record.

"The ASEAN leaders must be prepared to face the national and regional consequences of its premature decision, including increased displacement, undocumented migration and drug production that results from its ill-timed decision to grant Burma the 2014 chair," added the statement, which was signed by the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, the Asian Centre for Human Rights, the International Federation for Human Rights, the South Asia Forum for Human Rights, the All Student and Youth Congress of Burma, All Women's Action Society, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, the Asian Indigenous Women's Network, the Burma Centre Delhi, the Forum for Democracy in Burma, the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, the Women’s League of Burma, and others.

"We are extremely disappointed that ASEAN did not use the unique opportunity it had to influence the Thein Sein government to take meaningful steps towards democratic transition, peace, and national reconciliation," asserted the statement.

Added Khin Ohmar, coordinator of Burma Partnership and chairperson of the Network for Democracy and Development: "ASEAN has never been a strong promoter of peace and democracy in Burma. Even in 2006 when Burma was due to take up the chair, it was under pressure from the West and not ASEAN itself that Burma forfeited its turn after Western nations threatened to boycott the bloc’s meetings."

She charged that ASEAN's decision also failed to take into consideration that the regime has not taken any steps to end the longest running civil war in the world, but has instead deployed more troops in ethnic-nationality areas, nor has it shown any willingness to engage in genuine and inclusive political dialogue with opposition forces in the country.

Human rights violations and atrocities in northeastern Burma have significantly increased since the supposed reformer President Thein Sein came to power in March 2011. Between August 2010 and July 2011, the Burmese regime forced at least 112,000 people—the highest estimate in a decade—to flee their homes in eastern Burma. In addition, over 20,000 fled their homes as a result of Burmese army offensives in Kachin state and northern Shan state. The government has released a few high-profile prisoners, but there are believed to be over 1,600 political prisoners still behind bars—despite the recent denials of Burmese Information Minister Kyaw Hsan that there are any political prisoners in Burma. The new parliament has refused to repeal oppressive laws that facilitated the imprisonment of political dissidents, and in fact adopted new restrictive laws that disenfranchise many activists convicted in the past.

Debbie Stothard, coordinator of Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma claims that narcotics production and trafficking continues to run rampant throughout Burma with active support of the regime. Speaking to this writer from Bangkok, Stothard asserted that Burma is the second largest producer of opium in the world. In some areas of Shan state under the control of the military-led government, opium cultivation has increased by nearly 80% within the last two years, creating a greater threat to the security of neighboring states, she added.

In short, these critics maintain, the Thein Sein government has embarked on a series of largely cosmetic changes with the aim of gaining international legitimacy—but the reality on the ground remains almost the same.



Western states dismiss Burma's election
BBC News, Nov. 8, 2010

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Special to World War 4 Report, Dec. 1, 2011
Reprinting permissible with attribution