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HOW ASEAN CAN HELP BRING DEMOCRACY TO BURMA

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DILI, Jun 1 2004 (IPS) - ASEAN made history with its recent public remarks about Burma and its military government, calling upon them to release popular national leader Suu Kyi from house arrest and to take action to settle the country\’s long-running civil and political wars, writes Jose Ramos-Horta, Nobel Peace Laureate and East Timor\’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. In this article, Ramos-Horta writes that this reflected the mounting alarm of ASEAN leaders of Burma\’s right to assume the chairmanship of the group in 2006. If there is no change, in 2006 ASEAN will be led by a military government that keeps over 1,300 political prisoners, relies on forced labour for public works, and has left over one million people internally displaced, ASEAN must encourage and expect Burma to seriously engage with its own people, especially Suu Kyi, her party, and the political leaders of the ethnic nationalities. We must encourage and expect Burma to engage with its neighbours, with ASEAN, and with the United Nations, to effect political and economic change. And we must encourage and expect the SPDC to demonstrate their leadership bona fides by rising to these challenges.

In Burma, the respected popular national leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi continues her struggle for democracy, alone in her lakeside villa on the shore of Inya Lake in Rangoon, the South-east Asian nation’s capital. Incarcerated by her country’s military government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), she is cut off from family, friends, and supporters.

In Timor Leste (East Timor), Xanana Gusmao is struggling to consolidate democracy. He is president of a free East Timor and his biggest challenge is poverty. He lives high above Dili, the capital, and is surrounded by family, friends, and supporters.

Both are pro-democracy leaders, experienced in struggle and sacrifice. Both have suffered incarceration and been accused of causing their countries’ problems. Both have received visits from world leaders while imprisoned; she at her lakeside villa, he in prison.

Suu Kyi promotes peace through dialogue, diplomacy, and resistance, very much in the Gandhi mode. Gusmao was part of a relentless armed resistance in East Timor fighting the occupation while the East Timorese community abroad engaged in dialogue and diplomacy to win international support. He was a commander of the Timorese Armed Resistance, Falintil. She is the general secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD), a political party. Both groups have survived armed ambush, hers as recently as the attacks of May 30, 2003.

He is a poet and she, a writer. But writers are not free in Burma.

How similar the stories of my country’s president and the woman the Burmese simply call ‘The Lady’ — and yet how different.

How can we ignore her or what is happening in Burma to the 50 million Burmese? We cannot, and the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) has not. Nor has the United Nations Secretary General.

And neither have Burma’s regional neighbours. They have, in fact, expressed their dismay and disappointment about the SPDC’s actions and attitude towards Suu Kyi.

ASEAN itself provides a forum that can help bring about change in Burma. In fact, ASEAN can lead the way. It has publicly rebuked Burma.

ASEAN made history with its recent public remarks about the SPDC and Burma, calling upon them to release Suu Kyi from house arrest and to take action to settle the country’s long-running civil and political wars. This was a clear sign of ASEAN’s maturity and confidence as both a regional and an international player. It also reflected the mounting alarm of ASEAN leaders of Burma’s right to assume the chairmanship of the group in 2006.

The reality if there is no change is that in 2006 ASEAN will be led by a military government that keeps over 1,300 political prisoners, that relies on forced labour for public works, and that has left over one million people internally displaced.

The country also has a large number of land mines and is said by the Red Cross to have possibly the world’s largest number of child soldiers.

The systematic rape of predominantly ethnic women by the armed forces continues and every year condemnations are issued by the United Nations General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights. This is very worrisome to ASEAN leaders.

The question then is how do we respond to the crisis of governance in Burma? The SPDC leaders understandably have said that internal affairs are internal affairs. But in Burma’s case, their internal affairs have devastated their country and spilled over with negative effects on their neighbours and on ASEAN. We must encourage change, we must expect change, and we must engage for change.

Burma’s membership in ASEAN has been marked by contention and caused the group considerable damage. The most recent incident was the Asia-Europe Meeting’s (ASEM) cancellation of summit meetings with Asian finance ministers who want to include Burma.

ASEAN membership incurs responsibilities as well as privileges, and the regional grouping has a right to expect each member to fulfil the former. One of these is to not tarnish the others’ good standing.

We must then encourage and expect Burma to seriously engage with its own people, especially Suu Kyi, the NLD, and the political leaders of the ethnic nationalities.

We must encourage and expect Burma to engage with its neighbours, with ASEAN, and with the United Nations, to effect political and economic change.

We must encourage and expect the SPDC to demonstrate their leadership bona fides by rising to these challenges.

SPDC Prime Minister Khin Nyunt is facing a huge challenge. ASEAN can help. The SPDC must go much further than the reiteration of an already-failed road map to democracy, and the reconvening in May of an already-failed national convention process.

While both the road map and the national convention are fora that could be used to stimulate reform, this is not possible in their current form, which excludes the key political leaders in Burma.

To build a coalition, a community, and a country requires compromise. The challenge is there for all parties in Burma and we all stand ready and able to help. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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