Monday, October 31, 2011

Burma's Asean Chair Possible with Further Reform


A girl from Burma holds up a banner in protest against Burma President Thein Sein outside the Burmese embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Oct. 11, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

Further democratic reform in Burma must be achieved before it can chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014, observers have urged.

A decision whether to grant Burma the Asean chair will be made at the organization's next summit in Bali this November.

Several observers have told The Irrawaddy that there is a real possibility that Burma could win the Asean chair after positive remarks by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa who visited the country last weekend.

After his trip to Burma, Natalegawa said that he thought significant changes were happening in the country. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi met Natalegawa during his visit and also indicated that she may support Burma’s bid if there were further moves towards democratic reform by Naypyidaw.

Khin Ohmar, a leading Burmese activist who is the coordinator of the Burma Partnership and chairperson of the Network for Democracy and Development, told The Irrawaddy that significant steps such as releasing all political prisoners, ceasefires in ethnic regions and ending human rights abuses should be priorities for President Thein Sein.

“Military offensives in border areas should be stopped immediately,” said Khin Ohmar.

Natalegawa said in September that he would listen to the views of civil society organizations during his trip to Burma. However, Khin Ohmar said it was unfortunate that in reality the Indonesian foreign minister missed the opportunity to speak to ethnic minorities and recently freed political prisoners.

During his trip, Natalegawa met with government officials including President Thein Sein and also pro-democracy icon Suu Kyi. He said that he planned to share his ideas gathered during the fact-finding trip to Burma with other Asean foreign ministers upon his return to Jakarta.

Larry Jagan, a Bangkok-based Burma analyst, said that Suu Kyi’s voice will be a key indicator for Asean leaders to judge whether to grant Burma’s bid for the bloc chair.

“I’m sure that [Natalegawa] is impressed by what he heard and saw,” said Jagan.

A Rangoon-based journalist told The Irrawaddy that it was a real possibility that Burma could get the Asean chair in 2014 as Suu Kyi made positive noises in the media after meeting with the Indonesian foreign minister.

Pu Cin Sian Thang, chairman of the Zomi National Congress in Rangoon, said on Monday that Burma should first release all political prisoners and follow this by making peace with ethnic armed groups in order to build democratic reform. The government must tackle armed conflicts in remote regions by 2014, he added.

“We have heard the sound of gunfire, especially in ethnic minority areas, up until the present time. And perhaps the situation is worse than what we have heard. It is very important that [violence] is stopped,” said Cin Sian Thang.

Suu Kyi met with Burmese Labor Minister Aung Kyi in Rangoon on Oct. 30 and the pair discussed economic and financial matters as well as peace talks with ethnic armed groups and a further amnesty. The two agreed to meet again in the near future.

Zipporah Sein, general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), said unless government troops stop fighting with ethnic armed groups, Asean leaders should not give Burma a chance of becoming bloc chair.

Naypyidaw should call ceasefires, engage in peace talks and withdraw government troops from ethnic areas, she added.

Ethnic armed groups including Karen, Kachin, Karenni, Shan, Mon, Chin and Arakanese minorities have been fighting the government for autonomy for more than six decades.

Observers also said that Burma should learn from Indonesia with regards resolving conflicts with its ethnic minority groups. Jakarta made peace with the Free Aceh Movement in 2005 after 29 years of war.

Mohammad Miqdad, the executive director of the Jakarta-based Peace Building Institute, told The Irrawaddy that the Indonesian experience offers a precedent from which the people of Burma can learn.

“Negotiations between minority and majority ethnicities should be arranged. That could achieve the same result [as Indonesia] in Myanmar’ future,” said Miqdad.

In Indonesia’s Reformation Order, the government bestowed Aceh and Papua with special autonomy. The government agreed to negotiate in Aceh in order to achieve peace, with talks mediated by former Finnish President Marti Ahtisaari, said Miqdad.

However, he said that it was the responsibility of every community to strive for peace and not just a dialogue between the government and military men.
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