2009 Oct 26
October 26, 2009

ASEAN makes mockery of rights body

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HUA HIN, THAILAND—ASIAN leaders barely mentioned Burma’s (Myanmar’s) democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi at a weekend summit, making a mockery of the region’s grand claims for its new rights body, analysts said.

Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Burma, devoted just three lines to the military-ruled nation’s political situation in the nine pages of their final declaration.

While the statement called for elections promised by the junta in 2010 to be “fair, free, inclusive and transparent,” it made no mention of the opposition leader, who has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years.

The summit at the Thai resort of Hua Hin opened with the inauguration of ASEAN’s first human rights body, hailed by members as “historic” but derided by activists, given the lack of action on Burma.

“The whole thing is a bit of a farce,” David Mathieson, an expert on Burma at Human Rights Watch, told Agence France-Presse.

“There were pretty low expectations for the human rights commission and ASEAN has probably fulfilled these expectations. There’s no way ASEAN can maintain any credibility while kowtowing to the Burmese leaders,” he added.

Burma is Myanmar’s former name.

Role for Suu Kyi

At a briefing to ASEAN leaders on Sunday, Burma’s Prime Minister Thein Sein said the junta saw a role for Suu Kyi in fostering reconciliation ahead of general elections in 2010.

Thein Sein “feels optimistic that she can also contribute to the process of national reconciliation,” Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva quoted his Burmese counterpart as saying at the briefing.

He did not say if Thein Sein indicated whether this meant Suu Kyi would be allowed to take part in the electoral process.

Easing restrictions

Suu Kyi had her house arrest extended in August for 18 months after she was convicted over an incident in which an American man swam uninvited to her home. It effectively keeps her out of the way for next year’s elections.

Thein Sein also told his counterparts that the junta could relax the conditions of Suu Kyi’s detention, a Japanese official said—but this possibility was earlier raised by the junta at her conviction.

The human rights commission’s launch was marred by a row over the barring of rights activists from Burma, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Singapore, who were meant to meet ASEAN leaders at Hua Hin to discuss the new watchdog.

Burma’s representative, Khin Ohmar, said the exclusion of the activists was an “extreme disappointment,” but not a surprise.

“Now that the trial is done and Aung San Suu Kyi is back in house arrest, ASEAN is coming back to avoiding the whole Burma issue again,” she added.

US shift

Khin Ohmar said ASEAN was prevented from applying any real pressure on the military regime because of its long-standing policy of noninterference in members’ internal affairs.

Burma’s ruling generals did allow Suu Kyi two meetings with a minister this month after she wrote a letter to junta chief Than Shwe offering suggestions for getting Western sanctions against Burma lifted.

The move coincided with a recent shift in US policy to reengage the isolated regime, after decades of hostility.

“The change in the US approach reduces the pressure on ASEAN to push for reform in Myanmar,” said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at Singapore Management University.

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya told reporters the positions of ASEAN and the international community “remain firm,” reiterating the call for free and fair elections and the release of all political prisoners.

But ASEAN states have been reluctant to admonish Burma when they face their own rights issues, especially in communist Vietnam and Laos but also in Thailand, which has been under fire for its treatment of ethnic minorities. –Agence France-Presse