‘Time running out’ in Burma as jailed MPs remembered – The Irrawaddy


*version published by The Irrawaddy differs slightly from the text below

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) is urging free and fair elections in Burma, and is asking Asean member-states to take a strong stand in favour of democracy in Burma. Sen Aquilino Pimentel Jr. (Philippines) is President of the IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians. Speaking earlier today, he said “we wish to echo the world’s concern that the elections in Myanmar should be free, fair, credible and inclusive.” He said that “the Myanmar Government is using the elections to pretend that is is a democracy.” The IPU believes that democratic elections are impossible, given that the electoral law excludes Aung San Suu Kyi and over 2100 political prisoners. It concludes that “time is running out”, if steps to ensure free and fair elections are to be implemented before voting takes place.

Delegates stroll past the 'Myanmar display' at the IPU in Bangkok. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

The IPU is chiefly concerned with parliamentarians who are suffering abuses or are in detention. Sen. Pimentel and his committee are finalising a report on jailed MPs in Burma, a draft copy of which is available at the 122nd IPU assembly in Bangkok. The parliamentarians in question were elected in 1990, the last time Burma held an election. 13 remain in jail, 7 more died while in detention or shortly thereafter , and two others were assassinated outside the country. It is thought that at least one MP contracted HIV from infected needles while in custody.

The MPs were never allowed to take their seats, and the junta ruled the 1990 election invalid in its recently-published electoral laws. The report outlines the harsh, and often brutal conditions the parliamentarians are kept in. One excerpt – by no means the worst – is illustrative:

“3.3.1 Kyaw Khin was reportedly arrested on 5 June 1996 for recording and distributing video and audio tapes containing foreign news reports and documentaries on Burma. He was charged, along with eight others, under the 1985 Video Act, and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, and was given an additional seven years’ imprisonment under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, Article 5(j).

3.3.2 Shortly after his release in 2005 he was rearrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act after pamphlets were reportedly found near him in a classroom. He is currently detained in Taung-lay-lone Prison. Kyaw Khin has been suffering from a severe form of ocular pain since 2005 and is now close to losing his eyesight because he is being denied medical treatment. The office of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Taunggyi was informed by his wife of his plight but has been prevented by the authorities from providing assistance.”

Sen Pimentel said the IPU has made “numerous requests to the Myanmar Government” to be allowed visit the detained parliamentarians. The junta has not replied, and Sen. Pimentel reflected that “if the late Cory Aquino was denied the chance to meet Aung San Suu Kyi when she visited Myanmar as President of the Philippines, I don’t think a group of MPs will hold much sway with the Government.”

Asked by The Irrawaddy what the IPU can do to lobby on behalf of detained MPs and for democracy in Burma, Sen Pimentel conceded that “our main weapon is persuasion, we have no coercive powers.”

Signatures in support of detained MPs in Burma, at the 'Myanmar display' outside the main IPU convention hall in Bangkok. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

With Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelegawa currently in Burma, in advance of the Asean summit in Vietnam next month, Sen Pimentel urged Jakarta to follow Manila’s lead. Philippine Foreign Minister Alberto Romulo recently told his junta counterpart Nyan Win that Manila was concerned about the new electoral laws. After that meeting, Romulo later told reporters he was not satisfied with the conversation, noting that the Burmese foreign minister did not say much about the laws. Junta ministers are widely regarded as having little authority to discuss political matters, other than that granted to them by Sen-Gen Than Shwe.

However the IPU is apparently not the only international body lacking teeth when it comes to Burma. Sen. Pimentel reminded about Asean’s ‘non-interference’ policy with regard to member-states internal politics, but expressed hope that individual member-states could follow the lead set by Manila and Jakarta with regard to Burma. Without mentioning host country Thailand by name, he said that he hopes “other democratic countries in southeast Asia can speak out as well.”

The ‘non-interference’ principle seems set to remain, despite the recent establishment of an Asean human rights commission, and the view of the Asean Interparliamentary Myanmar Caucus that the internal situation in Burma constitutes a threat to regional stability and security.

Indonesia is now seen as the sole “full democracy” in southeast Asia – with countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines having regressed or stagnated in recent years. Vietnam, Laos, Brunei and Singapore are undemocratic – one-party states in some cases. However military-ruled Burma is seen as the litmus test of Asean’s commitment to human rights and democratisation. Pushing the junta toward reform would represent a significant achievement, and would enhance Asean’s international credibility and profile.

Asean S-G Surin Pitsuwan addresses the IPU Assembly in Bangkok (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Going by an exchange overheard by The Irrawaddy at the IPU, Asean could use such a boost. “Who the f— is he?”, an Australian delegate asked one of his compatriots, as Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan took to the stage on Monday afternoon. “Is he one of Ban ki Moon’s guys?”, was the follow-up. “No, that’s whatshisface, the head of Asean”, came the response.

To a half-empty, half-distracted hall, the Asean Secretary-General talked-up the bloc’s charter and new human rights body. However he made no mention of Burma – what will surely be the dominant issue facing the bloc at the upcoming summit in Vietnam. Elsewhere in the hall, a Libyan delegate snored, mouth ajar, while other delegates skimmed newspapers, chatted among themselves, and furrowed their brows over newspaper crosswords.

Asked by The Irrawaddy if Burma’s electoral laws and constitution contradict the ethos of a ‘people-centred’ Asean espoused in his speech, Mr Pitsuwan replied that “the ministers and Governments will meet in Vietnam and give their views then.”

Outside the convention hall, a poignant and detailed “Myanmar display” attracted what seemed to be just fleeting attention from passers-by. The center-piece of the display is a petition-board, exhorting IPU delegates to sign in support of their jailed counterparts in Burma. By this afternoon, I counted 22 signatures, out of a total of 1,400 delegates attending the assembly. Sen Pimentel and the IPU Committee on Human Rights were among the signatories, as were delegates from Chile, Ireland, Portugal, South Africa and Uganda among others, with one signature from IPU host country Thailand.

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