Asean’s Democratic Divide
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, October 15, 2019


Asean’s Democratic Divide


In this photo taken on February 24, 2010, two people take part in a vigil for missing journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda in Colombo. (Photo: Reuters)

The regional grouping must overcome its ideological differences if it wants to have a real impact on Burma’s upcoming election

The leader of Burma’s ruling junta, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, used the occasion of Union Day on Feb. 12 to reiterate his promise that this year’s election will be “free and fair.” However, given the fact that the regime continues to imprison and intimidate opposition leaders and party members, this seems unlikely to happen.

So far, the junta chief has given no indication of when the election will be held, much less how it will be conducted. This means that there is little anyone can do at this point apart from repeating calls to ensure that the election is fair and transparent.

Speaking through her lawyers, detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi recently urged the regime to release political prisoners and end the climate of fear that still prevails in Burmese society. Quite rightly, she insisted that unless there is freedom in the country, there can be no free election.

As important as this message is, however, it will mean far more coming from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which must now do everything in its power to convince Naypyidaw of the importance of meeting international electoral standards. Above all, it should tell the generals that it will not recognize the results of any election deemed illegitimate by the rest of the world.

One thing Asean must not do is let the regime off with its usual vague promises. Unfortunately, this is what happened last October, when the regime’s prime minister, Gen Thein Sein, told regional leaders in Singapore that an election law would be announced “very soon.”

But in Burma, where the ruling generals like to work at their own slow pace, “very soon” could mean anything. After all, these are the same people that dragged out the constitution-drafting process for 14 years.

At the very least, Thein Sein’s regional counterparts should have insisted on a ballpark figure. Instead, nearly half a year later, we are still completely in the dark about the regime’s plans.

The only thing that we can be sure of at the moment is that this year’s election will not be allowed to turn out like the last one. Than Shwe, who probably still shudders at the memory of the 1990 election, which Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won by a landslide, wants to avoid a repeat of that fiasco at all costs.

So, if he intends to hold an election as relatively free and fair as the one that took place 20 years ago, he will probably call it at short notice to deny the opposition an opportunity to organize and campaign effectively—unlike in 1990, when the voting date was set nearly a year in advance.

That is why regional leaders need to start pushing the junta to stop playing games and declare an election date.

Fortunately, it seems that at least some members of Asean realize that the credibility of their organization is at stake and have not hesitated to let the generals know what is expected of them.

The Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo recently called on the junta to ensure that the election is “free, fair, credible and all-inclusive.” Senior officials from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have also made similar statements, telling the regime that the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners is key to winning international credibility.

In February, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said that the two most democratic members of Asean, Thailand and Indonesia, could help Burma to achieve this goal.

“Without being seen as interfering in Myanmar’s [Burma’s] domestic issues, as friends and members of the Asean family we would like to see national reconciliation and peace in Myanmar. Holding free and fair elections will allow the country to bring peace and reconciliation back,” he said.

Specifically, Kasit said Thailand could provide training for Burmese officials to make sure the election runs according to democratic principles. He also offered to send Thai observers to monitor the vote.

As Kasit noted when making his offer of assistance, the legitimacy of the election hinges on cooperation between the regime and the international community. Indeed, it would be in the junta’s own interests to at least accept the participation of Asean members keen to end a political stalemate that has been a drain on relations between the region and its Western trade partners for more than a decade.

Unfortunately, however, not everyone in the bloc agrees that it is important for Burma to move toward a genuine democracy.

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