A group of legislators from member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have requested that any decision to designate Burma as chair of the regional grouping in 2014 be put off until there are clear signs that the country is moving towards democracy.
ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) Executive Director Agung Putri Astrid said the lawmakers from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines and Cambodia could not endorse Burma’s bid until the government made concrete efforts at reconciliation with the country’s ethnic groups and political opposition.
“The minimum conditions for real democracy are ongoing, so we would like to suggest to ASEAN that they delay the decision,” Astrid said.
ASEAN delayed a decision on a request by Burma to be ASEAN chair nation during the grouping’s previous summit in Jakarta in May this year, two months after the country’s military junta handed power to a new government elected in the first polls in two decades.
Marty Natalegawa, the foreign minister of Indonesia and current ASEAN chairman, is scheduled to visit Burma at the end of the month to meet government and opposition leaders and other groups as part of information gathering ahead of a decision on Burma’s request, possibly to be made at the ASEAN summit in Bali from Nov 14-19.
“We would like to see Mr. Marty, as the chairman, show ASEAN as a credible organization which will promote democracy in the region,” Astrid said.
She said that while the AIPMC acknowledged recent reforms initiated by Burma’s nominally-civilian government led by President Thein Sein, including last week’s release of some 200 political prisoners, more must be done to “ensure real democracy” in the country.
“Even though we really welcome the changes that have happened during the last weeks, including the release of political prisoners and relaxing of restrictions regarding freedom of expression … we see also that those measures and decisions made by the president are not enough to arrive at conditions that we consider positive for democratization,” Astrid said.
“We see the changes, but we don’t find a platform or a firm strategy to ensure that democracy is on the way. Particularly, we don’t see any measures taken by the government to ensure that the process of the dialogue regarding the conflict with the ethnic groups is starting,” she said.
“If these [minimum] conditions cannot be achieved, then we consider that it may be best for ASEAN to delay the decision for approving Myanmar’s (Burma’s) seat … until a certain situation is achieved, particularly regarding the road to reconciliation.”
Reforms fall short
Thein Sein, seen as a reformer in a newly-elected government largely consisting of retired military generals, has launched talks with the opposition, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and adopted other reforms in an apparent bid to get mostly Western nations to dismantle longstanding political and economic sanctions.
Last week, the government released the first batch of 6,300 prisoners under an amnesty program. Only a small percentage of those released were prisoners held for political activities, with numbers varying from at least 120 to as many as 300, rights groups said.
The groups say there are about 2,000 political prisoners but the government says they make up only a few hundred.
It is believed that the sanctions will be fully lifted only if all key political dissidents are released and the government forges peace with armed ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy, analysts say.
“The ethnic issue tends to be sidelined from the whole process, so we cannot agree that the release of political prisoners is equal to democracy,” Astrid said.
“We want to see, besides the release of the political prisoners, that the government has real steps to start a peace dialogue and reconciliation with the ethnic groups, as well as with the opposition and particularly the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Aung San Suu Kyi,” she said.
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD did not participate in elections but remains a formidable force in Burma.
Sanctions to remain
This week the United States also signaled that the reforms by the Burmese government were still not enough for sanctions to be lifted.
Derek Mitchell, the U.S. special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, said there were signs that Burma may be moving toward greater openness but it is unclear whether it has embarked on genuine, thorough-going political reform.
“We have seen encouraging signs over time,” said Mitchell, noting that Burma had not, however, curbed violence against ethnic minorities in the north and east of the country.
“What we’re looking for is a release of all political prisoners without condition to really send the signal of genuine commitment to democracy in the country,” he said.
Reported by Kyaw Min Htun for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.