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ASEAN ups rhetoric on election observers

Burma should open its doors to regional observers during elections later this year, an ASEAN summit has suggested after allegedly giving “an earful” to Burma’s foreign minister on Monday.

Burma’s controversial polls are high on the discussion list as 17 countries join the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc in Hanoi this week for the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

Malaysia’s foreign minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman said the observer proposal was made to Burma during the Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) retreat session yesterday. “We are saying Myanmar [Burma] should look, not only into its interest but also ASEAN’s interest…because in this respect, we are talking about credibility,” he told reporters after the session.

But Burma is unlikely to accede to the suggestions: the head of the government-appointed Election Commission, Thein Soe, said in May that the country’s prior experience with elections meant that it does “not need election watchdogs to come here”.

His comments echoed those of the head of Burmese ruling junta, Than Shwe, who said in March that that during fragile transition periods when “countries with greater experience usually interfere and take advantage for their own interests… it is an absolute necessity to avoid relying on external powers”.

ASEAN has long been in the firing line of Burma observers who claim that the bloc’s non-interference policy has rendered it impotent when dealing with humanitarian crises in its pariah member state. But the topic of Burma has featured highly during talks this week, both regarding the elections and reports that Burma is embarking on a nuclear weapons programme.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton is due in Hanoi tomorrow, as is North Korean foreign minister Pak Ui Chun, who skipped last year’s meeting in Thailand which followed on the heels of Pyongyang’s second nuclear test. North Korea has been closely tied to Burma’s maturing military ambitions but it is not yet clear how the ARF will broach the sensitive issue.

ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan told reporters following Monday’s session that Burmese foreign minister Nyan Win was told the elections could have “positive or negative implications” for ASEAN, which is trying to project itself as a major trade and investment partner.

Debbie Stothard, head of ALTSEAN-Burma network group, said that despite the bloc’s offer of election observers, “there isn’t much confidence that ASEAN will have the depth to point out the severe violations of international standards when free and fair elections are concerned”.

“ASEAN doesn’t even have to put a foot into Burma without realising that the election laws are in fact anti-democratic. She added that “this region isn’t exactly known for its high election standards”.

The disappointment was echoed by Roshan Jason, head of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Caucus on Myanmar (AIPMC), who said that while the bloc’s “aggressive advising” of the junta over the elections was positive, it “again falls short in making sure that it sets certain standard and guidelines and certain requirements”.

“How long [is ASEAN] going to give the regime to implement or to re-adjust the election laws? What if nothing happens? How long [will we give them if nothing happens]? That is the question which ASEAN should go on to address.”


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