By WAI MOE
KUALA LUMPUR —Thailand announced a statement as chair of Asean on Tuesday that expressed grave concern over the arrest and trial of Aung San Suu Kyi. As Asean chair, it said that it was ready to play a mediation role in Burma’s “national reconciliation process” and a “peaceful transition to democracy” in the country.
But, the arrest and trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, coupled with the international outrage in the West, has clearly put Asean’s human rights charter in the spotlight, which is now undergoing its first major test. Its response appears to be a carbon copy of its reactions and statements prior to its creation of a human rights charter.
So far only Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand have expressed their concern over Burma’s worsening political situation in recent weeks. Another founding member country, Malaysia, and other four countries including the next Asean chair, Vietnam, have remained silent.
Analysts agree that Burma continues to be an embarrassment for Asean. As a member country, shouldn’t Burma abide by the intent of Asean’s human rights charter, and, if it doesn’t, what should be the consequences?
A Thai member of parliament, Kraisak Choonhavan, told reporters at the Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand on May 15 that the junta’s current action is totally against the Asean Charter.
Many think the Burmese military regime is in violation of article 14 of the Asean Human Rights Body (AHRB). A draft of the forthcoming AHRB states that one of purposes of the human rights body is to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Asean.
Thitinan Pongsuhirak, the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said that Burma’s 2010 election is a violation of the Asean Charter because it is not a free and fair democratic election, but a rigged process to establish the regime as “legitimate.”
Since military-ruled Burma became a member of Asean in 1997, it has been a contentious issue for Asean, which is often forced to equivocate and haul out its oft-mentioned “non-interference policy” in internal matters of member states. The European Union and the United States are strong critics of Burma’s absolute lack of human rights and rule of law.
The Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) had been postponed several times because of Burmese issues and the EU’s common position on the country, which bans EU visas for officials of the Burmese junta and official visits of EU officials to Burma.
On Monday, Suu Kyi’s first day of trial, EU foreign ministers discussed the Burma issue in Brussels. After the meeting, ministers denounced the Suu Kyi trial and called for Burma’s neighbors to push the junta for positive change in the country. It also warned of further sanctions against Burma.
Czech President Václav Klaus will chair the EU-China Summit in Prague on May 20. At the meeting, the EU is expected to bring up Burma with its Chinese counterpart. Recently, China modified its Burma policy to include the principle of stability, development and national reconciliation.
ASEM foreign ministers and Asean foreign ministers will meet in Hanoi on May 22-25 to discuss bilateral issues between the two groupings. EU ministers have said they will raise the Burma issue when they are in Hanoi.
However, Asean, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, will avoid taking a critical stand, citing its core principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member countries.
The principle is enshrined in article 2 of the Asean Charter, which critics say effectively makes the Asian grouping toothless in terms of human rights issues.
By 2015, the Asean goal is full integration of all 10-member nations under an EU- style single market region.
Commenting on Asean integration, Latheefa Koya, a leading human rights advocate, said many Asean countries still lack a democratic civil society and an independent press.
Asean’s integration motto is: “One Vision, one Identity, one Community.” How that will accommodate human rights abuses is anyone’s guess.
Some observers note the motto’s similarity to the Burmese military regime’s motto of “One Blood, one Voice, one Command.”
This story was written under a 2009 Southeast Asian Press Alliance Fellowship.