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The International Community Now Expects: ASEAN Must Deliver

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The international community’s response to recent events in Burma has demonstrated a collective will to see peaceful dialogue and democratic reform within the country. Furthermore, ASEAN is increasingly seen by the international community as the key body to bring outside pressure to bear on the intransigent military generals. It is now up to ASEAN to live up to these expectations and fulfill its responsibilities as an intergovernmental body.
For those within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) hoping to celebrate 40 years of non-interference during the organisation’s 40th anniversary, the timing of recent events within Burma could hardly have been worse. The peak of the protests within Burma occurred just as senior government officials from around the globe were coming together for the UN General Assembly in New York and the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. As governments rushed to issue statements of condemnation regarding the Burmese military’s violent crackdown on peaceful protests, everyone waited to hear what ASEAN’s response would be. With individual and collective credibility on the line, ASEAN leaders had little choice but to join in the chorus of condemnation. Indeed, ASEAN did more than just join in; the strongly worded statement issued by the ASEAN Chair on 27 September succeeded in making ASEAN’s voice heard, sending a strong message to the world that the body did care about what went on within the borders of its member states.

The timing of events in Burma not only helped to produce unprecedented international condemnation; it also set in motion processes within the United Nations for follow up action. Although ASEAN’s statement may have succeeded in maintaining the credibility of the organisation, it by no means let ASEAN off the hook. On the contrary, ASEAN’s strong words created greater expectations regarding its role in helping to bring about national reconciliation, democracy and respect for human rights within Burma.

Expectation has focused mainly on ASEAN’s role in working with the UN. The statements made and mechanisms established at the UN level have been fully in tune with ASEAN’s own words on Burma. Therefore, it seems only natural that if ASEAN really means what it says, it will direct its efforts through the UN bodies and related mechanisms rather than seeking to go it alone.

So far, ASEAN’s actions have been encouraging. ASEAN’s member governments supported the mission of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser to Burma, Mr. Ibrahim Gambari, from 29 September to 2 October, and these efforts were duly acknowledged in the Presidential statement of the Security Council adopted on 11 October. Yet this is just the beginning of the UN’s revitalised engagement with Burma, and it is crucial that ASEAN maintains an active role in working with the UN in this regard. Not only will this demonstrate ASEAN’s sincerity over its professed desire to see national reconciliation, a peaceful transition to democracy, and the release of all political detainees; it is also necessary to ensure the success of the UN’s own efforts.

Firstly, ASEAN must assist the Human Rights Council in implementing the resolution agreed upon at its special session on 2nd October. As with ASEAN’s statement, this resolution also called for the release of all political detainees, for national dialogue with all parties with a view to achieving genuine national reconciliation, and for democratisation and the establishment of the rule of law. The Council designated the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, as the mechanism through which this resolution would be implemented. ASEAN must use all means available to it to bring the Burmese government to allow the special rapporteur entry into the country, and to help ensure that he gains access to the people and places needed to establish the numbers killed, injured and detained during the recent protests.

Secondly, ASEAN must continue to support the efforts of Ibrahim Gambari to bring about political dialogue between the military generals and pro-democracy leaders, particularly Aung San Suu Kyi, along with his efforts to secure the release of all political detainees. This assistance should include logistical support, such as helping Gambari to gain entry into Burma, but also requires greater efforts towards establishing a channel of communication with Gambari to help follow up on progress made during his visits.

Thirdly, ASEAN members should follow up on action taken at the UN Security Council. The Presidential statement adopted by the Security Council on 11 October illustrates how UN bodies are working together on Burma, with the statement welcoming the mission of Gambari and the Human Rights Council resolution, while itself emphasising the importance of releasing all political prisoners and creating conditions for genuine dialogue with all concerned parties. Furthermore, the statement kept ASEAN in the spotlight, maintaining the sense of expectation that this intergovernmental organisation should spearhead the joint efforts of the UN bodies.

The statement marks the first time that the Security Council has taken any formal action over Burma. Furthermore, the fact that China agreed to this statement represents a notable shift in their position of non-interference. ASEAN must now help to build on these developments within the UN’s most powerful body by indicating to China that political reform within Burma is an issue of genuine concern for ASEAN, and that it fully supports China’s involvement. With Indonesia currently being the only ASEAN member of the UN Security Council, it has a particular responsibility to help ensure that the Security Council remains engaged on Burma, and should actively explore possibilities for further action by the Security Council, such as the imposition of an arms embargo.

On 21st November, ASEAN leaders will meet in Singapore to sign the ASEAN Charter, hoping to demonstrate that ASEAN is moving purposively towards their vision of a community of caring societies. However, the time has now come when ASEAN will be judged by its actions rather than its words. The scene has been set for ASEAN to play an important role in moving Burma towards national reconciliation, democracy and respect for human rights. It is an opportunity that ASEAN must now grasp.