2011 Nov 04
November 4, 2011

Contaminating Asean hopes

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With the roadmap for an Asean Economic Community by 2015 well under way, preparations have begun in earnest for member states to instil positive changes in their respective economies and societies. The AEC will see the region integrate further, with free-flowing investment, services, cultures and labour extended into an economic community from which each respective member country expects to benefit.

However, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations must yet face a crisis of grievous, urgent and enormously challenging proportions.

Fighting, mass human rights violations, refugee exodus and other crises along Burma’s borders pose a threat not just to Naypyidaw and its immediate neighbours, but to all of Asean.

This crisis is a direct result of state-sanctioned violence in Burma, the consequences of which have spilled into the region. Due to political, social and economic insecurity, large numbers of Burmese are forced to flee to neighbouring countries. Most end up as refugees or illegal immigrants and suffer further human rights abuses. This national crisis with regional implications has become a matter of urgency for all Asean states.

Therefore, the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus believes this regional crisis rightly requires a collective, regional solution.

In order to become a truly free, prosperous, integrated and “caring” Asean as outlined in its roadmap, both the forum and its member states must take immediate action to deal with this crisis and prioritise Burma on its agenda. Otherwise, Burma will continue to fuel some of the region’s most entrenched, problematic issues.

The protracted crisis along Burma’s borders has been a “hot-spot” for some of the region’s most problematic issues: drugs and human trafficking. Burma is the region’s largest producer of methamphetamines and its porous borders offer a key “escape route” in the drug trade; the effects of this are felt in societies across Southeast Asia. It has become increasingly clear that many of the region’s shared concerns emerge as a direct result of internal conflicts in Burma’s ethnic border regions.

Reports of grievous human rights violations continue to emerge. Over 10,000 new refugees surge across Burma’s borders each year, which is indeed problematic for Asean.

Alarmingly, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees revealed that Burma is the world’s fifth largest refugee producer, with over 400,000 having fled. Without proper mechanisms in place to protect the vulnerable, refugees become victims of exploitation, sexual violence, forced labour and forced relocation. Burma’s state “development projects” have also internally displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

I note with concern that grievous violations often take place with the indirect support of Burma’s neighbouring states.

Close to Burma’s southeastern border with Thailand, the Tavoy Deep Seaport mega-project is under construction, one of a number projects funded by Thai private investment and backed by the Thai authorities. Italian-Thai Development Plc, responsible for project construction and management, has admitted that the port project will displace some 10,000 people.

A 1998 gas pipeline project carried out by PTT Thailand not only imposed significant economic strain on local Burmese villagers, but also marginalised them. Many were used as forced labour. The military presence there has increased four-fold since the project began, leading to increased incidents of rape, torture and murder.

Such investments serve to further perpetuate Burma’s crisis. This directly affects the security of the broader region, with corruption, crime, violence, drug trafficking and impunity typical of engagement with the rogue state.

Burma’s migrant workers is a regional issue requiring a regional response. Conflicts in ethnic areas, as well as “development” projects, have led to widespread human rights violations and increased migration overseas. Thailand’s economic system relies on the unskilled labour of migrant workers. The vast majority are from Burma, with an estimated 4 million Burmese living and working in Thailand. Yet, as elsewhere in the region, due to their tentative legal status, many continue to suffer human rights abuses and exploitation.

Thailand has sought over recent years to register its migrant labour force but the processes have proved problematic. A key barrier lies in the “citizenship verification processes” of the Burmese authorities, which exclude Burmese ethnic minorities from direct and indirect means of accessing refugee status.

Given that most Burmese migrants are from ethnic areas, where state-sponsored violence is widely perpetrated, refugees fear involvement with the Burmese authorities. They will most certainly not apply for refugee registration should they be required to send their names and personal details to Burmese government authorities.

Meanwhile, the authorities discriminate against specific cultural groups. The Rohingyas, for example, are consistently and systematically denied their rights to citizenship; and thereby, they do not apply for legal migrant worker status.

Indeed, as a result of these challenges, statistics tend to underestimate the number of Burmese in Thailand. Only some 900,000 applied for migrant worker registration last year and around 400,000 have yet to be processed.

This is a direct result of the delay in Burma’s citizenship verification processes. In July this year, an additional 600,000 Burmese applied for registration in Thailand. They must await recognition of their citizenship from Naypyidaw, which will take months or possibly even years.

Without legal status, many thousands are denied access to proper welfare and human rights protections, rendering them vulnerable to abuse and the scourge of “modern-day slavery” _ human trafficking.

Why Asean must take action?

I fear the Asean Economic Community, despite its desire for a more prosperous region, will continue to favour the “non-interference” principle for which it is known, while the broader international community increasingly recognises the critical nature of this crisis.

Having witnessed the crisis in Burma, Asean member states must not ignore the plight of those suffering from our own deeds, not only for humanitarian concerns, but also for regional security.

Thus, Asean is called upon to develop mechanisms to monitor the border areas; to develop diplomatic activity with the junta regarding border issues; engage with international actors to help end the conflict; and, most importantly, continue to encourage the junta to establish democratically accountable institutions. Such recognition would serve to integrate Burma into the Asean community, and in doing so, serve to enact the peace, growth, security and stability this region so requires.

Asean leaders are called upon to place the border crisis in Burma as a priority in the Asean agenda. An end to the crisis could also be brought about should Asean assist civil society actors to establish national reconciliation and dialogue with state officials.

Foremost, Asean member states must ensure that all of Burma’s people _ especially ethnic minorities or migrant workers outside the country _ have their human rights protected until such time they may return home.

Until these efforts are undertaken, the border crisis will remain a blight on Asean’s aspirations for a freer, more secure and peaceful future.

Most importantly, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, as chairman of Asean, must deeply and seriously study Burma’s request to chair Asean in 2014.

I ask that Indonesia, in consensus with fellow Asean states, use this opportunity to offer the chair to Burma _ upon the conditionality that Naypyidaw immediately act to improve its dire human rights situation. — Bangkok Post