BANGKOK: What should have been a showcase moment for Thailand, current country chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has turned into a logistical and public relations nightmare—and a major embarrassment to the government of Oxford-educated Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
For sure, most of the Asean leaders—among them Philippine President Gloria Arroyo—probably commiserated with the embattled Abhisit, who was hounded by protesters to the 14th Asean Summit’s site in Pattaya, some 165 kilometers south of Bangkok. There, the protesters pressed on with their demand for his resignation. By Saturday, the Thai hosts were forced to cancel the entire summit altogether after the demonstrators broke into one of the official venues.
But one Asean member country may have been thankful that, for once, it was not the focus of attention: Burma, or officially the Union of Myanmar, the largest country by geographical area in mainland Southeast Asia or Indochina.
Indeed, even though the agenda for the Pattaya summit was supposed to concentrate mainly on finance and trade, Burma was probably bracing itself for yet another round of criticism from rights activists who refuse to let Asean—and the rest of the world— forget about the abuses committed by the country’s military junta that has ruled over the last 48 years.
Burma’s perennial bottom-dweller slot in world economic lists was considered one of the serious obstacles in Asean’s desire to achieve a single market by 2015. Yet it is the country’s dismal human-rights record that was seen as the real stumbling bloc to that goal.
This was why the Asean Charter came into force only in December 2008, after fierce objections to it from Burma’s military government were finally overcome.
The charter is intended to transform Asean into a rules-based organization in the style of the European Union. It is also supposed to give the regional grouping a legal identity for international negotiations and transactions.
Among other things, the charter promotes free trade and economic integration and incorporates a 10-year treaty banning nuclear weapons in the region. “It will bind some 560 million people with the potential of making a stronger voice for prosperity, peace and stability,” Philippine Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Claro Cristobal has said.
But critics have also described the Asean Charter as “a purely symbolic document,” largely because of the absence of provision for sanctions or expulsion of countries that violate the rights of their own citizens. A provision for the creation of a human-rights body also barely made it through, and was probably the groundbreaking document’s most debated and highly controversial part.
Mere talk shop?
It doesn’t help any that Asean has a “tradition” of agreeing by consensus, and a policy on non-interference in internal affairs that have given the grouping a not-so-flattering reputation of being just a “talk shop.”
Debbie Stothard, coordinator for the human-rights group Alternative Asean Network for Burma (Alt-Asean), has pointed out, “Asean has often been ridiculed for apparently turning a blind eye to the Burmese regime’s failure in complying with the principles now enshrined in the association’s charter as well as the ongoing human rights abuses committed by the junta, including the arrest, intimidation, and sentencing of political activists and pro-democracy demonstrators.”
Stothard noted that between the adoption of the Asean Charter in a leaders’ summit in Cebu City in January 2008 and its coming into force in December of the same year, the Burmese military rulers had not taken steps to address the political and human rights concerns that had been raised in the course of drafting the charter.
Instead, she said, in November the military junta even ordered longer prison terms—ranging from four months to 68 years—for more than 200 political activists, including opposition journalists and poets.
All rights violators
All of Asean’s 10 member countries— Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam— have come under fire at one time or another for alleged violations of various human rights.
More recently, Thailand was criticized for its mishandling of Rohingya refugees from Burma. According to many media reports, the refugees were first gathered in an isolated island by members of the Thai military before they were forced to board rafts and left in the open seas with the most meager of food and water provisions.
But it is Burma that inarguably has the spottiest human-rights record in Asean, even though the country is a signatory to some of the most important international treaties on rights protection and promotion, particularly the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
At one point, the human-rights organization Amnesty International even declared that “torture has become an institution” in Burma under the junta.
Apart from torture, among the litany of abuses committed allegedly by the Burmese military and which are mentioned repeatedly in reports of international human-rights groups are murder, rape, detention without trial, arbitrary executions, massive forced relocations, forced labor of villagers as military porters in combat zones and child labor.
‘Brutal prodigal beast’
Hundreds of thousands of rural folk, especially in areas occupied by the minorities, have fled their homes to avoid being drafted by force into the military. Many of them have wound up on the borders of Thailand, where some 150,000 Burmese refugees have settled temporarily in nine camps.
To Zin Linn, information director of the Bangkok-based National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, Asean itself is the loser in its tolerance of Burma’s alleged misdeeds. The “winners” are the junta, which has gained credibility by Burma’s participation in the grouping, and some Asean member states, which have benefited from the arrangement.
The national coalition is the Burmese government-in-exile composed mostly of those who won in the 1990 parliamentary elections that the junta refused to recognize.
Commented Zin Linn: “Asean is trying to tame a brutal prodigal beast. [We] think they can’t win because the [Burmese] generals even use the Asean ticket just for their benefit. They are exploiting the Asean because, you know, Asean is also a toothless tiger.”
“The Asean plays a very soft stance,” he added. “I think [member countries] would also like to exploit some economic benefits or interests from Burma because it has a lot of natural resources. Thailand, Malaysia and, you know, Singapore, they are exploiting the natural resources . . . logging and also the natural gas.”
Thailand is acknowledged as Burma’s top source of foreign direct investment, and is estimated to provide half of the official $15-billion foreign direct investment in 2008. Burma’s hydropower industry attracts much of the investment dollars from neighboring countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, but firms from these nations have also placed their bets on Burma’s timber and garment industries.
Kavi Chongkittavorn, assistant group editor of The Nation Multi-Media Group in Bangkok, meanwhile said that for the human rights body to work under the charter, the terms of reference should be comprehensive and liberal to provide a clear mandate to follow up, investigate, and write reports on cases of rights violations.
But Kavi, who served as special assistant to the Asean secretary general in 1993 to 1994, observed that one problem with the association is that it does not have a strong leader who could speak out against the likes of Burma—a leader who is respected by the rest of member-states. “At the moment,” he said, “there is no such leader, so Burma can get away [with violations of Asean regulations and principles].”
Asean Secretary General and veteran Thai diplomat Dr. Surin Pitsuwan has been candid enough to accept that the Asean Charter is not a perfect document.
In an address before members of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance in Bangkok in November, Surin encouraged journalists from the region to “contribute to its perfection.”
“Inform your people that they, too, have a stake in the implementation,” he said, “with the letter, with the spirit of the Charter so that we can help build this society.”
Elections in 2010
As for Burma, Khuensai Jaiyen, editor in exile of the Shan Herald Agency for News in Chiang Mai, Thailand, said that the Burmese themselves have not lost hope.
“With Burma, there is always hope,” he said in an interview in Bangkok, even though “the charter hasn’t given teeth to the grouping . . . only a mouth.” Still, he said, the ‘mouth’ could be of use to the Burmese “if it is spoken at the right time by the right person to the right person.”
Khuensai Jaiyen did caution that in Burma’s scheduled 2010 elections, the junta could follow the same undemocratic processes it had in the May 2008 referendum on the country’s latest constitution. Yet even then, he said, there may be reason to think positively.
“The hope is that the rulers would be satisfied with the one-quarter quota and leave the rest to the people,” he said, referring to the military’s share in the nation’s wealth in relation to the Asean goal of having a single market in 2015. “If they are, then 2015 can be expected to be the best year for Asean.” –Tita C. Valderama, Philippine Center For Investigative Journalism