Philippines to break ASEAN poll silence

Philippines President Benigno Aquino III is set to describe Burma’s controversial 7 November elections as a “farce” at the annual summit of Southeast Asian leaders in Hanoi this week.

Aquino’s statement, seen by the Manila Standard Today, would be the strongest yet from any of Burma’s neighbours on polls widely decried by critics as a charade. The president will cite the exclusion of Aung San Suu Kyi as a sign that the elections lack credibility, the Standard claims.

Under Burma’s 2008 constitution, one quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, and any serving or former political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, are barred from seeking office, leading many in the democracy movement to urge an election boycott.

Two junta-backed parties, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National Unity Party (NUP), are expected to be the only parties fielding candidates for the vast majority of seats. Opposition candidates have complained of harassment, and foreign election watchdogs and journalists have been barred from observing the polls.

The elections are not officially scheduled for discussion at the three-day Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, which starts on Thursday. However, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has said there may be a session to discuss recent progress in the region at which the topic may arise.

Aquino’s statement at such a high-level meeting will represent an unusual level of diplomatic bluntness, given ASEAN’s long-standing policy of non-interference in members’ internal affairs. Burmese premier Thein Sein will be in attendance, as well as UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“This is definitely the strongest statement by an ASEAN head of government on the elections,” said Debbie Stothard of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN), a regional network of human rights groups. “It is high time someone called a spade a spade as far as these elections are concerned,” she said.

Regional leaders are believed to be concerned about the effect international condemnation of the polls are having on ASEAN’s reputation. The bloc’s secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan, has called on the junta to ensure the elections bring about national reconciliation.

“I think President Aquino is merely expressing what some of the ASEAN leaders themselves are starting to feel in private. It’s pretty clear that the [Burmese junta’s] election has created much more controversy for ASEAN,” said Stothard.

Aquino himself has a distinguished democratic pedigree. His father, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr became a democracy icon in the Philippines following his assassination in 1983 at Manila International Airport, which now bears his name. The resulting People Power Revolution ended the oppressive rule of Ferdinand Marcos, bringing Aquino’s mother, Corazon Aquino, to power as president of the country in 1986.

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