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Southeast Asian Politicians Take Action to Block Burma from Heading ASEAN

  • Ron Corben

A group of Singapore legislators have formed a parliamentary caucus to push for reforms in Burma. The Singaporeans join growing numbers of politicians around Southeast Asia who want Burma to either reform, or withdraw from the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year.

The formation last week of the Singapore legislators' Burma caucus ramps up the pressure on military government in Rangoon to change - or back away from the leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Peresa Kok, an opposition member of parliament in Malaysia, takes note of the growing calls for Burma to improve its human rights performance and allow democratic reforms.

"Singapore MPs have mentioned the issue of Burma in their parliament and the foreign minister has also answered questions on Burma. And for the Philippines - a resolution on Burma not to be the chair of ASEAN has been passed by both houses," said Ms. Kok.

In Thailand, more than 80 senators have backed calls for Burma to pass up its turn to take ASEAN's rotating chairmanship next year. Last week, Indonesia's parliament passed a resolution calling on the government to boycott ASEAN meetings if Burma takes the helm.

Several Malaysian politicians plan to present a resolution on the issue for a vote when Parliament reconvenes later this month.

Among other things, these regional politicians are growing frustrated with the continued detention of Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who turns 60 this month.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained for most of the past 15 years. The military refused to give up power after her party, the National League for Democracy, won national elections in 1990, and has placed thousands of NLD supporters under arrest.

The military, which has ruled for more than 40 years, has opened a national convention to draft a new constitution, which Rangoon says will pave the way for general elections.

But progress on drafting the constitution has been slow, and the NLD and some ethnic minority groups have no voice in the convention. As a result, many regional political analysts fear any new constitution will merely solidify the military's grip on power.

Since its early days in the 1960s, ASEAN has followed a strict policy of not interfering in its members' internal affairs. But Burma is testing that policy, as many regional leaders and business people fear that Rangoon's resistance to change could hurt crucial relations with the United States and the European Union.

Both have threatened to boycott ASEAN meetings next year if Burma takes the chair.

Some political analysts think the creation of the Singapore parliamentary caucus could signal a new push against Burma. Singapore's government has long supported Rangoon and Singapore businesses invest heavily in Burma. But while visiting Rangoon in March, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong reportedly warned that developments in Burma could affect all of ASEAN.

"The launch of the Singaporean caucus marks something of a coming of age for the ASEAN regional caucus,"

said Debbie Stothard, the coordinator for the rights group the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma. "Many people thought that it would be extremely difficult to launch a Singapore parliamentary caucus on Burma."

Ms. Stothard hopes the Singapore caucus will encourage conservative lawmakers throughout the region to support their own national caucuses on Burma.

"We do not expect Singaporean parliamentarians to take a position that's going to be in radical opposition or confrontation with their own government," she said. "Government MPs are pretty much close to the government line."

Soe Aung, a spokesman for the exiled National Council of the Union of Burma, says the different parliamentary caucuses highlight the growing frustration within ASEAN over Burma.

"The caucuses were set up because not only the awareness of the people in their countries on Burma but also the governments realize they cannot adhere only to the ASEAN cardinal principles of non-interference," he said.

One factor that may fuel to the ASEAN push for Burmese reforms is that in the past two decades many of the 10 countries have undergone extensive reforms, increasing democracy and allowing greater political and economic freedoms. Having made these changes at home, many politicians are reluctant to be associated with a repressive regime.

The issue of Burma's ASEAN chairmanship is expected to take center stage next month, during the group's annual foreign minister's meeting in Laos - which U.S. and EU officials attend. Several ASEAN governments reportedly are seeking a face-saving compromise that will allow Burma to gracefully back out from taking the chair.

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