BANGKOK — Recent reforms by the Burmese government are not enough to warrant the country’s taking the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014, say long-time opposition exiles.
The Burmese government is pressing to head the ten-state regional bloc, after being refused its turn to hold the rotating Asean chair in 2006. Incumbent Indonesia is sending Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa to Burma to discuss the matter, prior to an upcoming Asean summit in Bali scheduled for Nov 17.
In the most recent of a series of high-profile moves aiming to demonstrate its reformist credentials, on October 13 the Burmese government permitted the release of 237 political prisoners—according to numbers given by the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP).
“There are more than 1,700 political prisoners still being held in Burma” said Soe Aung, a Thailand-based Burmese dissident, speaking at a Wednesday press conference in Bangkok.
Among those still detained are former military junta Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and leaders of the 1988 mass student protests—during which the Burmese Army shot dead an estimated 3,000 civilians.
Also held are well-known monks such as Ashin Gambira, who played a key role in the 2007 Saffron Revolution protests against military rule in Burma. AAPP founder Ko Bo Kyi said that there are 91 Burmese Buddhist monks counted as political prisoners who remain unaccounted for.
“They could be in jail, they could be sent to the army frontline in the ethnic states—we just don’t know,” he said, raising questions about the likelihood that Burma will free all remaining political prisoners, which activists say should be a prerequisite for the country to take the helm at Asean.
There are rumors that more political prisoners will be released in advance of Natalegawa’s visit and the Asean summit, and the early October releases follow on from the formation of a National Human Rights Commission in September and other initiatives such as the Sept 30 announcement that work on the controversial Myitsone Dam in war-torn Kachin State, close to the Burma-China Border, would be postponed until 2015.
The US $3.6 billion China-funded dam—if it still goes ahead—will flood an area around the size of Singapore, with 90 percent of the power generated being sent to southwest China. However, despite the postponement, fighting is ongoing in Kachin State between the Burmese Army and the Kachin Independence Army, after a long ceasefire since 1994 came to an end in June, and armed clashes are taking place in other ethnic minority regions inside Burma.
Activists say that Burma’s accession to the head of the regional bloc should be based on the same criteria used by western countries to decide whether or not sanctions on the Burmese government should be lifted.
Better relations between the government and ethnic minorities is on this to-do list, and in an interview with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published on Oct 25, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said that “obviously now is not the time” to lift sanctions. It is thought that Western governments, particularly the US, will take their cue on Burma sanctions policy from the views of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who was freed from house arrest by the Burmese government less than a week after the Nov 7, 2010 election in Burma.
Former Thai MP and a long-time advocate of reform in Burma, Kraisak Choonhavan, said that ”We should challenge this so-called new regime in Naypidaw and ask them to come here, to discuss their reforms, and see how the type of information discussed here will be reacted to.”
He added that Burmese exiles and dissidents in Thailand need to be more dynamic and “recognize with caution some of the changes taking place inside Burma.”
However, activists remain skeptical, citing prior attempts by Burma’s government to burnish its image internationally by periodic release of political prisoners. Khin Ohmar questioned why the Burmese government is pushing for a 2014 deadline to head Asean, saying that there are other litmus tests to the country’s reformist credentials to come.
“The rotating chair will come to them in 2016, and there is an election in 2015,” she said. “Why the hurry now? Why not see if the next election is free and fair first?”
The still-influential Aung San Suu Kyi dismissed the importance of the Asean wrangle in her interview with the WSJ. “Assuming the chairmanship of Asean isn’t going to do anything about improving the lives of people,” she said.