The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Asean: Time to Interfere

The Burma Asean chair issue is only first on lawmakers’ list


In the middle of 2004, both ruling Barisan Nasional Government MPs and those from the opposition benches of the Dewan Rakyat (People’s Assembly) established the Pro-Democracy Myanmar [Burma] Caucus of the Malaysian parliament.  It was something of an historical event as it was one of the rare occasions when there was a consensus among Malaysian parliamentarians from a broad political spectrum that the region was about to encounter a major diplomatic crisis which would potentially have grave implications for the region’s political and economic future.


Zaid Ibrahim

Thus, as the MP entrusted with the task of finding a realistic and practical way out of the embarrassing prospect of Myanmar taking its turn as chairman of Asean in 2006, I drew up a plan, together with my fellow members of the caucus, to treat this as an Asean-wide concern.  It was decided that the best way to assess the commitment of other Asean MPs was to gather them together on a friendly basis to hear their views regarding the impending dangers that the region would inevitably face in its relations with partners who had been traditionally engaged with Asean in bilateral and multilateral dialogues.


Invitations were sent to other Asean parliamentarians. Positive responses were received from five of them: Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.  The outcome was the formation in Kuala Lumpur in November 2004 of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, of which I am privileged to be the chairman.


We unanimously agreed that the question of democratic change, particularly in the context of globalization, was inevitable and that Myanmar should be urged to make good its assurances when it was first admitted as member state of Asean in 1997 to move forward with its program of political reform.  This was all the more urgent and, indeed, unavoidable in view of the rotating chairmanship of the grouping being passed on to Myanmar in 2006, a decision on which would be made by the middle of 2005.


In effect, what the Asean parliamentarians from six of its member states embarked upon was a unique and interestingly well-coordinated effort to persuade their respective governments not to be deterred from encouraging the Myanmar government to act on the question of democratic reform merely because of the Asean policy of non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs. Their terms for Myanmar’s succession to the chairmanship in 2006 were extremely modest. They asked, firstly, that Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners be released immediately and unconditionally.  Secondly, they wanted the Myanmar Government to re-constitute its National Convention to draw up a new constitution, so that it was truly all-inclusive ensuring especially that the opposition National League for Democracy and ethnic nationalities were constituent members of that body.


Clearly, a convenient diplomatic ploy such as the reference to a somewhat inappropriate non-intervention policy in the face of serious external implications does not hold much water, seen in the context of the immediate and long-term future and well-being of all 10 members of Asean.


We feel duty-bound to raise the issue of Myanmar’s current internal stalemate and its unsatisfactory international reputation.  We are by no means limiting our concerns to Myanmar alone as we believe that it is our collective responsibility to push and prod our Governments towards more democratic norms in their governance such as recognizing basic freedoms and supporting human rights. If Asean seriously hopes to maintain and enhance the region’s economic prosperity and political stability, then it must inevitably follow the global trend that pervades the world over.


We do not anticipate that Asean’s bilateral and multilateral ties will be jeopardized by accommodating these international waves of change. Within the region, we feel that Asean parliamentarians should initiate the birth of dialogue and understanding on regional issues of common concern to them such as the problem of migrant workers, environmental pollution caused by uncontrolled open fires, territorial disputes, human rights abuses, the spread of narcotics and diseases such as HIV, to name a few.


Asean governments have for too long remained aloof from these unhealthy developments, and preferred to take to the sidelines under the pretext of the so-called principle of “non-interference.”  Asean lacks the necessary mechanisms for making the grouping more united and having common policies on such urgent issues and the elected representatives of the people strongly feel that the time has come for them to play a pro-active role at a regional level.


Zaid Ibrahim, a British-trained lawyer, is a ruling party National Front MP for Kota Bahru in the Malaysian parliament. In November 2004 he was unanimously elected chairman of the new Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar [Burma] Caucus.

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