It all sounds a little too fanciful. The idea of Burma as a regional role model for the treatment and release of political prisoners requires just too much of a leap in faith in the reforms that have swept that country, even after the release and pardon of more than 600 remaining dissidents.
But the government of Thein Sein could be setting a trend and perhaps unwittingly promoting regional dialogue. As Burma again grabbed the international spotlight with its latest releases and self-described reconciliation policies, Laos and Vietnam also announced they had freed dissidents.
The numbers were much smaller. Vientiane set seven Christians free, while Hanoi said it had released French-Vietnamese Pham Minh Hoang, who will still remain under house arrest for three years for trying to overthrow the government. He wrote 33 articles criticizing his country.
Their release also came as Cambodia injected some life into the perennial debate by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on whether it should institute a charter to protect human rights, hardly the type of document Burma would have signed up to three months ago.
The ASEAN Secretariat has promised but done little to deliver on the charter, while the 10 states that make-up the bloc notched-up a dismal track record on human rights, prompting Amnesty International to declare ASEAN had failed to share a “single piece of substantive information” on the process.
This was despite almost two decades of “considerations,” and there had been no official response to submissions made by a coalition of groups working on the declaration. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay added, “this is potentially a very important document which may set the tone for years to come.”
Cambodia has just assumed the annual rotating chairmanship of ASEAN, and according to Om Yintieng, Chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, a draft of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration will be agreed upon this year in order to build an ASEAN based on “one community and one destiny.”
His comment was as surprising as Burma’s reforms and the release of dissidents elsewhere. An agreement would lead to a declaration of principles, a commission to monitor and promote those rights and hear complains, and a court to render binding decisions.
There have been some suggestions that Burma’s rapprochement with the West has inspired an improved attitude to human rights across the region. Such arguments are the stuff of fairytales and don’t belong in the corridors of real power inside ASEAN.
However, Burma’s reforms should provide hope for optimists, like Om Yintieng, seeking regional consensus and momentum on issues like the ASEAN charter for human rights.
If that’s achieved, then ASEAN may well develop a real moral compass and turn out to be something more than a simple trading bloc of 500 million people.