Hanoi holiday for Burma’s junta – The Irrawaddy

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Thein Sein pictured en route to the ASEAN/EAS summit gala ball at Hanoi's NCC (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

HANOI – Some news reports coming from the 17th ASEAN Summit here in Hanoi say that the Burmese representatives have been under pressured by ASEAN counterparts to add some credibility to the country’s November 7 general election.

However, with the notable exceptions of Indonesia Foreign Minister Marty Natelegawa, his Philippines counterpart Alberto Romulo and President of the Philippines Benigno Aquino III, ASEAN leaders have kept quiet about the upcoming vote.

A kinder, albeit less-likely interpretation, is that whatever they might have said to Prime Minister Thein Sein and Foreign Minister Nyan Win behind closed doors is just not reaching the information-starved media gathered inside Hanoi’s National Convention Centre. ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan affected a weary countenance when asked whether Burma was discussed by ASEAN leaders at their meeting on Thursday – though to be fair he told reporters as much about what was said on Burma as anyone else.

By Friday, it appeared that ASEAN leaders had given up on the issue. Surin told reporters that it was now important to focus on the post-election period. However, elections are, after all, merely part of a broader process, requiring credible electoral laws, open campaigning provisions, free access to information, freedom of the press and a working system of checks and balances underpinned by the country’s constitutional or legal codes. Burma has none of these. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon repeated his view expressed earlier in the week when visiting Thailand, that “it is not too late” for the elections to be made credible, it is hard to know, short of wholesale revision of the Burma’s governance, how the elections could be made free and fair.

In an email, Aquilino Pimentel, a veteran Filipino politician, said that he is “saddened that there appears to be lukewarm support from other ASEAN countries, save for one or two exceptions, for the upholding of the rights of the Burmese people, which have been trampled upon for more than two decades now”.

Thailand’s delegation at the summit has said little about the vote, despite, or perhaps because of the stakes involved for Burma’s biggest trading partner. Host Vietnam has a democratic deficit of its own, jailing bloggers and Catholic land protestors during the past week, thereby prompting a rebuke from Washington, D.C. “There have been some recent instances where journalists, bloggers, other activists have been arrested. This is contrary to Vietnam’s own commitment to internationally accepted standards of human rights, including the freedom of speech,” Government spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters.

Speaking from Hawaii, where she made a brief stopover en route to Hanoi, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said said at a news conference in Hawaii, “I would like to

Feeling the pressure? Thein Sein after the ASEAN-China summit on Friday (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

underscore the American commitment to seek accountability for the human rights violations that have occurred in Burma by working to establish an international commission of inquiry (COI) through close consultations with our friends, allies, and other partners at the United Nations”. Australia supports the establishment of a COI, but when asked earlier by The Irrawaddy on Saturday morning whether she would raise the Burma issue at her meeting with ASEAN leaders on Saturday afternoon, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, a self-confessed foreign policy neophyte, refused to comment.

Clinton is likely to flag the Burma issue while in Vietnam, but has overnight been caught up in a war of words with Beijing over islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by China and Japan. China rebuked Hillary Clinton, saying it was “strongly dissatisfied” with remarks that appeared to back Japan in the argument over the islands.

Japanese officials said China had cancelled at the last moment what would have been the first formal encounter since the dispute between Wen Jiabao, Chinese premier, and Naoto Kan, Japan’s prime minister. The meeting had been agreed earlier on Friday at an apparently cordial encounter between foreign ministers of the two countries. However, Hu Zhengyue, a Chinese assistant foreign minister, later criticised Japan for “unceasingly disseminating” views that he said are a violation of China’s sovereignty. Clinton is due to travel on Saturday to Hainan Island off China’s south coast, after a meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister in Hanoi.

India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had a face-to-face meeting with Wen Jiabao on Friday, with Singh airing his concerns with Wen over disputed territory in the Humalayas, and China’s trade surplus with India.a hefty trade surplus in China. Beijing’s ‘string of pearls’ acquisition of port and havbour facilities in the Indian Ocean – which includes developments on Burma’s coast – has alarmed India’s security establishment.

Australian PM Julia Gillard talks to an aide en route to the EAS on Saturday (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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