ASIA: Burma Gives ASEAN a Black Eye with Suu Kyi Case

  • by Marwaan Macan-Markar (bangkok)
  • Friday, May 22, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

The trial of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, which began May 18, goes against the language of the charter of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), adopted in the Indonesian capital Jakarta last December.

Under the ASEAN charter, the bloc’s 10 members agreed to strengthen democracy, the rule of law, and to promote human rights as part of their commitment to give the 42-year-old alliance a much-needed makeover - transforming it into a unified legal entity that resembles, in some ways, the European Union.

Yet barely six months into its new incarnation a major test looms for ASEAN - which includes Brunei, Burma (or Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The concern within ASEAN over its international standing is conveyed in a statement released on the second day of Suu Kyi’s trial by Thailand, the current chairman of the regional body. 'With the eyes of the international community on Myanmar at present, the honour and the credibility of the Government of the Union of Myanmar are at stake,' noted the strongly- worded statement, departing from the usual diplomatic niceties that often pepper such official declarations.

'In this connection, the Government of the Union of Myanmar is reminded that the ASEAN Leaders had called for the immediate release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,' the statement from Bangkok added. 'Furthermore, the Government of the Union of Myanmar, as a responsible member of ASEAN, has the responsibility to protect and promote human rights.'

Suu Kyi’s latest troubles with Burma’s oppressive regime stem from the intrusion of John William Yettaw, a U.S. citizen, into her home on the banks of the Inya Lake in Rangoon, where the 63-year-old opposition leader has been under house arrest for over 13 years. Yettaw entered the compound as an uninvited guest earlier this month by swimming across the lake in Burma’s former capital.

The charges that Suu Kyi faces in this trial, held all week, could lead to a five-year sentence. She is accused of breaking a 1975 law - that she violated the terms of her detention - even though she has been kept a captive and isolated from the world by the security cordon around her house.

Two of Suu Kyi’s female housekeepers were charged also last week by the judge presiding over the trial taking place in a court within the compound of the notorious Insein prison, in northern Rangoon. The 53-year-old U.S. national is also facing charges in this court, renowned for its secret trials.

The trial comes days before Suu Kyi’s current period of house arrest was to end, on May 27. A ruling against her - which many Burma analysts expect - will prevent her playing a pivotal role in the run up to a 2010 general elections, which the regime has promised as part of its 'roadmap to democracy.'

Outrage is building among many Burmese and others in the international community. To thwart any angry outbursts in Rangoon, the military regime has strengthened security around the prison and in other key locations across the city that could attract protesters - such as the landmark Shwedagon Pagoda.

Truckloads of police have been placed near the west and north gates of the pagoda, near the city hall, the courthouse, a popular market, and a hotel that has offices for U.N. staff, a Rangoon resident told IPS. 'In the Insein suburb there are many police, police trucks and police checkpoints.'

'People on the streets are now - in most cases - angry with the American and with the authorities for pushing this case,' added the resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 'Much information is coming through over exile radio in the evenings so people are more aware.'

The statements of outrage that have come from ASEAN, Western governments and even the U.N. human rights envoy to Burma have failed to impress human rights and pro-democracy activists. 'Just issuing statements are not enough. This is the time for international action to free Daw Aung Suu Kyi and the over 2,100 other political prisoners,' says Bo Kyi, head of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, a group of former Burmese political prisoners based in Mae Sot, along the Thai-Burma border.

'She is a national leader who should be free, not a prisoner,' Bo Kyi added in a telephone interview. 'Her current case is further proof that there is no rule of law in Burma. She did not commit a crime.'

This latest embarrassment to ASEAN is part of a pattern that the junta has stuck to over the years. In May 2008, following the devastating Cyclone Nargis that crashed through the Irrawaddy Delta, killing some 140,000 people, the regime refused to open the country to humanitarian agencies until international outrage forced it to concede some ground.

The previous year, in September 2007, Burmese troops opened fire on peaceful pro-democracy protesters led by thousands of Buddhist monks. That drew an angry response from ASEAN, which expressed its 'revulsion' at such brutality, sharing the mood of disgust echoed by Western governments.

Yet, angry words by the regional bloc barely produced palpable change, convincing ASEAN watchers that Burma’s over 10-year presence in the grouping will only continue to earn it more disrespect.

The limits of the regional bloc to reform the pariah in its midst was confirmed during the 14th ASEAN Summit held in Thailand early this year. The region’s leaders declared that the U.N. - not ASEAN - would take the lead in prodding Burma towards political reform after over 47 years under military rule.

'This is the third time in recent years that the regime has misbehaved so dramatically and embarrassed ASEAN,' says Debbie Stothard of ALTSEAN, which campaigns for human rights in the region. 'It is pretty clear the regime assumed it would get away this time too.'

'Burma’s rulers have exposed an inherent flaw in the ASEAN charter, and the goal to establish a regional community with common values,' she told IPS. 'There is no mechanism to penalise members who break the charter and who go against its spirit.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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