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Burma’s membership of the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has long been dogged by controversy, with complaints centering on fears that its domestic crises are increasingly tarnishing the image of the bloc. But last month Burma’s bid to take the revolving chair in 2014 – something it has so far failed to achieve – looked a possibility, causing alarm among observers who claim it is still far from fit to take on the responsibility. DVB caught up with Eva Kusuma Sundari, president of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) pressure group, who said that ASEAN’s priorities cause it to turn a blind eye to issues of human rights.
What is ASEAN looking to achieve by potentially offering Burma the chair?
Burma has a keen interest in chairing ASEAN in 2014 and is looking for full support from ASEAN member states. ASEAN has been increasingly important for Burma’s authoritarian government in order to support his attempts to counter international condemnation of its violation of human rights and democracy in Burma.
According to the charter, the chairmanship of ASEAN is following the principle of alphabetical order but it is not automatic: ASEAN needs to get consensus on whether it accepts Burma’s request or delays the chairmanship of Burma. The 18th ASEAN Summit decided to form an assessment team to see whether Burma is ready to chair ASEAN in 2014. The report of the assessment will be submitted and presented in the next ASEAN Summit in Bali, in September 2011. We are working hard now to lobby this assessment team to give them more input and pressuring the team to prevent Burma becoming the chairman of ASEAN in 2014.
Would it surprise you if Burma is awarded the chair?
We know from the beginning that ASEAN has been very weak in advocating for democracy and human rights for Burma. The blatant fact is that even the ASEAN member states have less commitment to democracy. The Indonesian people, for example, are still struggling to defend their freedom, and the country is not yet a democracy. On the other hand the state has been driven to the core of global competition where freedom is only allowed in so far it has economic benefits. Therefore to move the issue democracy and human rights in ASEAN forward seems impossible because most ASEAN member don’t see its political and economic benefits.
If Burma is awarded the chair, it will not surprise us. This will tell us that our work has not yet done enough to urge ASEAN to promote democracy. It will make us even more certain that ASEAN has a limited capacity to implement the charter that they have already agreed on. By saying this we will also realise that the international community gives no strong pressure to ASEAN.
What do you feel are the key priorities of ASEAN? Trade, or protecting human rights?
At its early stages, ASEAN’s main purpose was to build a common concern over security. By the end of the cold war ASEAN inevitably faced the fact that security is no longer a relevant issue but that economic integration is moving forward. ASEAN countries are thus under continuous pressure to open their national economies by giving more freedom to the people.
Freedom of expression and movement as required n order to build a regional economy is incompatible with this authoritarian type of government. Bearing in mind that human rights only comes in second after the economy, it is not surprising to know that the issue of human rights in ASEAN is nothing more than a document.
Even further the ASEAN economic integration has not resulted in an increase in living standards of the people. People get no benefit from trade, which brings about a surplus that China enjoys most of. Meanwhile domestic industries are paralysed because of global trade and the opening of the domestic markets.
ASEAN has been deliberately abandoning the human rights issue. No serious effort has been taken to develop mechanisms to protect migrant workers, for example. The increasing number of cases of violence against migrant workers tells us that regional economic integration is not intended for people’s wellbeing.
ASEAN countries have for so long been enjoying the benefits of trade. However it is more challenging now as the many problems arising from trade impact seriously on the lives of the people. Some ASEAN countries have been under serious criticism because of lack of protection on the rights of migrant workers. ASEAN has to sit together to talk about forest fire smoke; ASEAN has to talk about civil war in the region as the region being the site of a growing arms trade. The more ASEAN countries have democratic movements calling for the protection of human rights and democracy, the more ASEAN countries have to see the economy no longer as an economy in itself.
Why is it so ineffective at tackling human rights violations in member states?
We are dealing with a special type of human rights violations – gross, extraordinary and extra-judicial crimes. It happened in the past and is still happens today. This violation occurs in two ways: first, the state apparatus has sponsored and further actively involved and directed violence, attacking civil society. Secondly, that the state has manipulated the culture and the nationalist spirit to control society and to seek justification for committing the violence. The authority has been governed in such ways as to protect the ruling elite, to discriminate against the people and to cover crimes committed by the state office. The violence has involved the state apparatus, groups of people, civil organisations, the law, the policy, and the regulation. Thus on the one hand there are thousands of victims suffering from violence while on the other hand there are people who are responsible for the crimes. We have to deal with perpetrator, bystander, witnesses, and collaborators in such incredible numbers. We also see the lack of independence of the judiciary – the most responsible person has not yet been punished and some of them got light sentences or were just simply exempted from the accusation.
Ineffectiveness in tackling human rights violations come along with high rates of poverty, corruption, weak government initiatives, the culture of impunity and fragile politics.
What are should be the main priorities for ASEAN?
To promote democracy that ensures and protects the civil and political rights of the people – democracy in substance, more than just the procedure of voting. Substantial democracy means an acknowledgement to the person, organisation or party who genuinely represents the people, and not to exclude them from the political process.
The importance of protecting sovereignty is seen as the cornerstone of ASEAN policy. Does this justify or excuse the way it operates?
Respecting the sovereignty of other country has been an international norm, and there is no problem with that. ASEAN member states have rich experiences in participating in international peace: Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand sent their national armies as part of the peace-keeping forces in East Timor after the referendum in 1999, while the Indonesian army has been sent to Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and the Congo to defend peace. There is no reason to put sovereignty as barrier to advocate for humanity. The problem is with the organ – we have not yet developed ASEAN as an organ for defending humanity against poverty and protecting human rights in the region.
What can ASEAN really to do affect change in Burma?
ASEAN has taken initiatives to be a good partner of the Burmese government in humanitarian affairs. However ASEAN should work more effectively for humanity by developing various strategies in dealing with human rights issues. Regarding sanctions for example, ASEAN has made statements before pledging to undertake serious initiatives to evaluate the impact of sanctions on the people. ASEAN should take the initiative to develop an informal forum or task force on the human rights situation in Burma.
Why is it so far not doing this?
It is closely related to the issue of urgency: ASEAN has suspended the decision on Burma’s chairmanship in 2014 by establishing an assessment team which will be dispatched to Burma to asses the political situation, and whether it is conducive for chairmanship. Thus international pressure on ASEAN is also important.
Do you feel that Indonesia should have done more during this time as the chair to realign ASEAN’S objectives with regards to human rights?
Indonesia needs to strategise its chairmanship. It has legitimacy to promote democracy and pluralism. Rather than pursuing the ASEAN Community of 2015, Indonesia should focus on creating conditions for democracy and leading the move to protect pluralism in the region.