Burma’s bid to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014 was politely dismissed when the bloc concluded its latest summit in Indonesia without a clear commitment on the matter. Instead of receiving support for its bid, Burma was advised by fellow ASEAN members to build better infrastructure first if it really wants to lead the group in the future.
But the unstated reason for the quiet rejection of the country’s aspiration is the apparent failure of the ruling junta to improve its poor human rights record. In the eyes of ASEAN, and the rest of the world, Burma’s new government has been unable to hasten the democratization process because of its lack of sincerity and the fact that there is no definite and lasting initiative to promote political reconciliation with dissident parties.
ASEAN also bowed to pressure from Western governments and advocacy groups, which warned about the incompatibility of the regional group’s democracy drive on the one hand, and Burma’s atrocious human rights record on the other. They correctly pointed out that ASEAN would become a laughingstock within the international community if it allows Burma to lead the group in 2014 or 2015.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Indeed, Burma's government is guilty of spectacular crimes against its people and has committed some of the worst human rights violations in the modern era. Democracy is almost nonexistent in the country, despite the earlier pledge of the junta leadership to promote civil liberties after the holding of elections last year and the revival of the parliament last January. The media, meanwhile, is still tightly controlled, while political parties still need to undergo a strict and unreasonable registration process. In addition, critics are still handed insanely long-term jail sentences and there are about 20,000 political prisoners in Burma.
The decision to deny the country a chance to lead ASEAN is laudable, and must be sustained until we see substantial political reforms in the country. But the political will to uphold human rights must be applied in other countries in the region where gross human rights offenses are also being perpetuated by the state.
Burma isn’t the only nation in ASEAN whose government is accused of undermining the democratic rights of the people. There are equally notorious bullies in the region that must be named as enemies of freedom and human rights.
In fact, Burma’s confidence in asking for the ASEAN chairmanship could have stemmed from the knowledge that its pretentious neighbouring states also have democratic deficiencies. If Burma were asked to explain the continued detention of pro-democracy leaders, it could always retort by inquiring about the documented torture of suspects in Indonesia, the legal persecution of opposition leaders in Malaysia, the use of cluster munitions by Thailand in its border war against Cambodia, the continuing lack of media freedom in Vietnam and Cambodia, the absence of a genuine multiparty political system in Singapore and the rise of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.
The truth is that ASEAN member countries and Burma critics like the United States have lost the moral ascendancy to preach respect for human rights.
It’s not wrong to regard Burma as the epitome of an evil regime in Southeast Asia, but this view shouldn’t prevent us from exposing and resisting the varying shades of authoritarianism in the region that are anathema to the building of a genuine democracy.