Muted International Reaction to Opening of Parliament – The Irrawaddy


BY SIMON ROUGHNEEN AND LALIT K. JHA – While international media headlines focused on the “historic” opening of Parliament in Burma, international diplomatic reaction has been somewhat muted.

Since Monday’s first sitting of Burma’s Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament, little has been said by countries or international organizations that either have strong trade or diplomatic links with Burma, or by those that have been critical of the ruling junta.

Among the few to make any comment, a foreign ministry statement from Tokyo said, “The Government of Japan will closely observe the future direction of the National Assembly, including its administration, debates to be taken, as well as activities of pro-democracy movement and ethnic minority parties.”

A US statement ahead of Monday’s opening sessions was less optimistic. “The Nov. 7 parliamentary elections were neither free nor fair, so unsurprisingly it has yielded a parliament dominated by the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party, so-called USDP, and military officials,” said State Department spokesman P J Crowley.

We’re not surprised by this,” he told reporters at his daily news conference. “As we have long said, we want to see political prisoners released; we want to see an inclusive, open political process.

“We were disappointed last week that the Burmese Supreme Court had the opportunity to authorize the recognition of the National League of Democracy, as well as other democratic and ethnic opposition parties,” he said. “This would have been a good step to enter a genuine inclusive dialogue, and unfortunately, as we’ve seen recently in Burma, it was another lost opportunity.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague also preferred to comment prior to the opening of Burma’s parliament. “There will be nothing to celebrate when Burma’s military-dominated Parliament meets for the first time on 31 January,” he said bluntly.

A more upbeat American comment came from Daniel Baer, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

“There’s an opportunity here to chart a more positive path and we will continue to engage to try to encourage and offer support for that,” he said. “Part of engagement is making clear our perspective that political prisoners need to be released, that the National League for Democracy needs to be allowed to register, and Aung San Suu Kyi needs to be given the space to operate.”

Baer added that the US’s recent engagement with Burma has been in the context of the Obama administration’s broader policy of principled engagement around the world. “I would put an emphasis on the principled part of that engagement which is to say yes, we’re making attempts to reach out and to try to encourage positive forward action in Burma and in other places with the understanding that things will be difficult,” he said.

“I expect that our policy of engagement will not change, but obviously times change and the topics on which we engage can change and we’ll continue to do everything we can in our engagement to pursue speedy movement toward progress,” Baer concluded.

The European Union High Representative on Foreign Policy and Security, Catherine Ashton, has not issued a statement on Burma since the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. However, in a release after the Nov. 7 elections, she said, “The EU will observe closely how accountable the new Parliament and government will be vis-à-vis the electorate; whether the new institutions will ensure respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and contribute to a process leading towards reconciliation and democracy; and whether they will deliver better policies to improve the economic and social situation of citizens.”

This should mean that the EU will keep a close watch on how the parliament functions and how effective it will be. The EU has a Special Envoy for Burma/Myanmar, Italian Piero Fassino. However he has not spoken about Burma since March 2010. As an appointee of the previous EU foreign representative, Javier Solana, it is not clear what hi’s role is under the new system since the implementation of the EU Lisbon Reform Treaty.

Mr. Fassino’s job-spec includes providing support to the United Nations Secretary-General’s envoy to Burma, currently Ban Ki-moon’s Chief of Staff Vijay Nambiar. However, like the United States, the UN does not at present have a full-time Burma envoy.

Other European countries that are from time to time outspoken on Burma, such as Ireland, Czech Republic, Denmark and France, did not comment on the parliament opening. Closer to Burma, there were no statements by Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia by or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) or Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan.

Burma is a member-state of Asean, currently headed by Indonesia, and Asean governments have called for Western sanctions on Burma to be dropped now that elections have facilitated to formation of a parliament.

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