HUA HIN, Thailand – Asian leaders barely mentioned Myanmar 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 Myanmar, 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 widely derided by activists, given the lack of action on Myanmar.
“The whole thing is a bit of a farce,” David Mathieson, a Myanmar expert at Human Rights Watch, told AFP.
“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.
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.
A senior Southeast Asian diplomat confirmed to AFP that Myanmar and Suu Kyi were not discussed at the ASEAN leaders’ retreat, although they did come up when the bloc met with leaders from China, Japan and South Korea on Saturday.
Myanmar’s Prime Minister Thein Sein 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 rights commission’s launch was also marred by a row over the barring of rights activists from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Singapore, who were meant to meet ASEAN leaders at Hua Hin to discuss the new watchdog.
The Myanmar representative, Khin Ohmar, said their exclusion was an “extreme disappointment”, but not a surprise.
“Now 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.
Khin Ohmar said ASEAN was prevented from applying any real pressure on the military regime because of its long-standing policy of non-interference in members’ internal affairs.
“As long as they have that they will not be able to solve the Burma problem”, she added.
Myanmar’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 Myanmar lifted.
The move coincided with a recent shift in US policy to re-engage the isolated regime, after decades of hostility.
“These are positive developments and I think Myanmar authorities have promised their commitment to the… roadmap (to democracy)”, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya told reporters in Hua Hin.
The positions of ASEAN and the international community “remain firm”, he said, reiterating the call for free and fair elections and the release of all political prisoners.
But ASEAN nations have been reluctant to admonish Myanmar 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.
“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 the Singapore Management University.
“ASEAN has usually had limited impact on reforms in Myanmar, and this pattern is likely to continue,” she added. –Rachel O’Brien, AFP
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