Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Activists attack ASEAN on lack of Burma pressure

HONG KONG (Reuters) - A leading Myanmar(Burma) dissident slammed ASEAN's failure to pressure the junta over its crackdown on pro-democracy protests, as the 10-member group unveiled a charter on Tuesday that enshrined human rights and democracy.

"It's a historical moment for them to sign the charter, which is supposed to be the charter for the protection and promotion of human rights, and now they let the (Myanmar) regime take over their agenda," said Khin Ohmar, a former student leader of Myanmar's 1988 uprising, in which up to 3,000 people died.

"Now they're taking sides with the regime it seems. I think it's a bad step and backtracking," she said at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club.

The ASEAN charter, unveiled at a summit marking the grouping's 40th anniversary, aims to integrate the economies of its 10 member-nations and to "strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms".

"Burma has been a major shame for ASEAN," Khin Omar said. "The social, economic and security aspects that it's looking to resolve and promote in the region, will not happen if they don't resolve Burma's situation." (Also read "US says ASEAN reputation at stake over handling of Myanmar")


Myanmar's Foreign Minister U Nyan Win told his Japanese counterpart on Tuesday in Singapore that Western sanctions had hurt ordinary citizens the most and the way toward democratization was through economic development.

"The West has imposed economic sanctions, which directly harm the lives of ordinary citizens," a Japanese official quoted U Nyan Win as telling Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura.

"I am not aware of a case in which sanctions resulted in the progress of democratization. Rather, economic development leads to democratization."

Nyan Win also criticized the West for only listening to the opposition.

"Not everything that the opposition, which stands up to the government, says is correct. Only when one realizes that there are mistakes among the opposition, can we come closer to each other."

Small demonstrations around the region were staged to protest what critics say is ASEAN's soft approach to the junta's iron-fisted rule.

In Singapore, four Singaporeans defied a ban on both Myanmar protests and a general law on group protests with a march towards the ASEAN summit venue, while in Bangkok about 20 activists protested in front of the stock exchange.

In Kuala Lumpur, some 200 people from Myanmar living in Malaysia staged a skit mocking Myanmar's crackdown on the recent monk-led protests in the country.

ASEAN diplomats say the group is grappling with a dilemma. On the one hand, Myanmar's membership is complicating its efforts to create a powerful and influential bloc in a globalize world. But shoving the junta beyond the pale would drive Myanmar further into China's embrace and to ASEAN's disadvantage.

ASEAN has instead opted for "engagement" with Myanmar, calling on the junta to work with the United Nations towards democracy and to release political detainees.

"It's been a buffer state between China and India," said Tony Regan at energy consultancy Nexant. "The ASEAN policy was to take on Myanmar as a friend and therefore make it less vulnerable and less paranoid. Now they have a credibility problem."

Khin Omar said ASEAN was setting itself up for more pressure. "If they don't get some kind of resolution toward Burma during this summit, I think the whole international community and governments will put more pressure on ASEAN.

By James Pomfret

(Additional reporting by George Nishiyama and Koh Gui Qing in Singapore, Jalil Hamid in Kuala Lumpur, and Nopporn Wong-Anan in Bangkok; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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