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Myanmar Turns ASEAN’s Democracy Beacon

BANGKOK, Apr 11 2012 (IPS) - Long Southeast Asia’s black sheep, Myanmar is enjoying an image change following its landmark Apr. 1 by-elections. Tongues are now wagging about the region’s new beacon of hope for democratic change.

The just concluded summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Cambodian capital revealed hints of the new image of Myanmar (also known as Burma) as it embraces political reform after 50 years of military dictatorships.

Activists and opposition politicians point to the landslide victory of Myanmar’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party as a sign of openness – absent in ASEAN countries such as Laos, Vietnam and Brunei and under siege in Cambodia and Singapore.

“In Cambodia, we are already taking Burma as a good example of a democratic feature: justice will prevail,” Mu Sochua, parliamentarian from the country’s opposition Sam Rainsy party, told IPS. “If Burma can do it, why not Cambodia?”

“In Vietnam, freedoms and human rights are not even discussed in the country as it is considered treason,” she added. “When I was in Singapore as a guest of the opposition Democrat party that has no seats in parliament, the meeting was cancelled and the organisers continue to be questioned even two years later.”

Others expect Myanmar’s small steps towards democracy to reverberate across ASEAN, whose other members include Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand.

“The reform in Myanmar will not be limited to its borders but holds out the possibility of spilling over across the rest of ASEAN,” says Yuyun Wahyuningrum, senior advisor at Indonesia’s non-governmental organisation, Coalition for International Human Rights Advocacy (HRWG), who attended the regional summit on Apr. 3 – 4 in Phnom Penh.

“More people in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and even Singapore are talking of this possibility,” she told IPS from HRWG’s office in Jakarta. “I am looking forward to this moment in the sub-region.”

But there are other implications from the democratic dividend that Myanmar’s President Thein Sein is enjoying after his one-year old quasi-civilian government held the by-elections, where the NLD party of Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi, won 43 of the 45 seats contested.

In easing the pressure off a reforming Mynamar, ASEAN will lay open the democratic deficits of its other members who have not been exposed for their harsh treatment of opposition figures, of suppressing the media or refusing the rights of political and civil liberties.

“For many years the non-democratic countries in ASEAN had been hiding in a very comfortable place behind Myanmar, evading international criticism,” reveals Yuyun. “Now I think they will begin to panic since they will soon be exposed for their human rights record and practices.”

“Eyes will move to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the rest,” she added. “Until 2010 Vietnam spoke on behalf of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and itself, especially when Myanmar faced criticisms.”

ASEAN’s attempt to improve its image through an intergovernmental human rights commission and drafting an ASEAN human rights declaration will add heat on these countries, says Sinapan Samydorai, director of Think Centre, a Singaporean think tank. “They will be exposed to more critical reviews in terms of civil and political rights.

“Lack of freedom of expression and association, corruption and the abuse of political power and the lack of the rule of law will place Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in an awkward corner,” Samydorai told IPS. “Civil society groups in Cambodia and in other ASEAN countries have begun to express this view.”

The singling out of Myanmar as an embarrassment began in 2001, four years after it joined a bloc that has two communist-ruled countries, Vietnam and Laos, and an absolute monarchy, Brunei. ASEAN also has one-party authoritarian states such as Cambodia and Singapore.

Malaysia and Thailand have democratic credentials that are under a cloud, leaving Indonesia and the Philippines as the only ASEAN members with claims to being robust democracies.

ASEAN summits typically end with a statement on the political situation in Myanmar, under ‘Regional and International Issues’. ASEAN summits, with the United States as dialogue partner, were under pressure to get the junta in Myanmar to ease its iron grip on power.

Myanmar as a diplomatic embarrassment even precipitated tension within the bloc as governments talked of “constructive engagement” and “flexible engagement” to shield their regional neighbour from Western criticism.

“ASEAN has now reached a stage where it is not possible to defend a member when that member is not making any attempt to cooperate or to help itself,” a visibly frustrated former Malaysian foreign minister Seyed Hamid Albar said in 2006. And in 2007, ASEAN expressed “revulsion” at the brutal crackdown on protesting Buddhist monks in Myanmar’s cities.

“It is easy to find black sheep in this region,” says Pavin Chachavalponpun, associate professor at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, in Japan. “As much as ASEAN liked to support political developments in Burma, it was content to see the global attention being paid only to Burma all along.

“This way they could get away with certain behaviours that potentially undermined democracy,” the academic told IPS. “Thailand I think is a country that could also be exposed, because the 2006 coup weakened democratic institutions by the concentration of royal power.”

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