Subject: IPS: Timor Calls for Burma Freedoms Ahead of ASEAN Meet

Also - JRH: Burma's Future Requires Reconciliation

RIGHTS: East Timor Calls for Burma Freedoms Ahead of ASEAN Meet

By Sonny Inbaraj

DARWIN, Australia, Jun 28 (IPS) - East Timor, on the eve of the annual meetings of South-east Asian governments, is leading the call for the release of Burma's Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the restoration of democracy in the military-ruled country.

''ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations) itself provides a forum that can help bring about change in Burma,'' Jose Ramos-Horta, East Timor's minister for foreign affairs, told IPS in an interview.

''The reality is that if there is no change in Burma, in 2006 ASEAN will be led by a military government that keeps over 1,300 political prisoners, that relies on forced labour for public works and causes over one million Burmese to be internally displaced,'' said Ramos-Horta.

The 37th ASEAN ministerial meeting, consisting of meetings among the foreign ministers of ASEAN's 10 member governments, begins on Jun. 29. It is hosted by this year's ASEAN chairman, Indonesia, on the resort island of Bali.

Burma, which the junta has renamed Myanmar, is expected to assume the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN in 2006.

Amnesty International in its latest report stated the Burmese military continued the widespread use of criminal convicts from prisons and labour camps as porters and to clear landmines by walking across suspected minefields.

Also, said the international rights group, pre-trial political detainees were held incommunicado in solitary confinement, which facilitated torture and ill treatment during interrogation.

''Political trials fell far short of international fair trial standards and detainees were often denied legal counsel,'' added the report.

ASEAN, South-east Asia's key diplomatic grouping, consists of Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Newly independent East Timor has applied for observer status with ASEAN, as a precursor to becoming a member of the regional grouping. It is expected to attend the AMM as a guest -- similar to its status at last year's ASEAN meetings in Cambodia.

''Suu Kyi has asked free people to 'Please use your liberty to help us achieve ours'. I am happy to respond to that call, but know that liberty does not come without resistance, dialogue and diplomacy,'' said Ramos-Horta.

''How can we ignore her, or what is happening in Burma to the 50 million Burmese? We cannot and ASEAN has not,'' he added.

Early this month, a group of Malaysian government and opposition parliamentarians formed a caucus to exert pressure, through ASEAN, for Suu Kyi's release from house detention.

Also at last year's ASEAN Regional Forum, a regional security forum held immediately after the meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers, the chairman's statement incorporated references to Burma that indicated a desire to see a peaceful transition to democracy in the country.

''They (the ASEAN ministers) welcomed the assurances given by Myanmar ... and looked forward to the early lifting of restrictions placed on Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League of Democracy (NLD) members,'' read a clause in the statement.

It remains to be seen what new action or statements on Burma will come out of this year's meeting, which is being held less than two months after Rangoon reconvened the national convention to discuss a new constitution.

Though the process leaves out Suu Kyi and her party, the junta has scored political points through this step that Prime Minister Gen Kyin Nyunt says is part of the country's road map to democracy.

Last week, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, special rapporteur on Burma of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, noted ''some interesting developments,'' such as the participation of some 400 ethnic groups, in the convention.

''I am seeing that both on the government and NLD sides there is a space'' for loosening their tense relationship, he was quoted as saying in Geneva, although he said the NLD's absence remained a serious flaw.

For months there had been talk among Burmese, Thai and other diplomats of Suu Kyi's release before the convention starts, but she remains in detention. Jun. 19 was Suu Kyi's 59th birthday and she has so far spent eight of her birthdays under detention.

She was first placed under house arrest in 1990 by the junta after the NLD won 80 percent of seats in nationwide elections, the results of which the junta refuses to recognise.

In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights. She was released briefly in 1995, but her movements outside the capital Rangoon were restricted by the junta.

But Suu Kyi has been detention since May 30, 2003, after her convoy was attacked by pro-government thugs.

It comes as no surprise that in 2002, Burma's military government voiced its opposition to East Timor gaining observer status in ASEAN due to the support it has shown for Suu Kyi.

A consensus of all 10 member states is needed if a country, in the region, is to be given observer status.

''By adding East Timor to ASEAN, it could add some new ideas which could challenge the Burmese,'' said Sunai Pasuk, head of research for the Bangkok-based rights group Forum Asia.

For East Timor, a membership in ASEAN is only logical, given the fledgling country's geographical proximity and common history with its South-east Asian neighbours.

For 25 years, East Timor was occupied by Indonesia. The Timorese in a United Nations-sponsored referendum opted for independence in late August 1999 and became independent in May 2003, after a two-year interim administration led by the United Nations.

''We know we have much to offer the regional grouping, despite being the poorest of the ASEAN countries,'' said Ramos-Horta. ''ASEAN has publicly rebuked Burma, so our comments are in step with the regional grouping's concerns.''

Like Suu Kyi, Ramos-Horta received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for his ''sustained efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict of East Timor based on the people's right to self determination.''

''As a Nobel Peace Laureate I have obligations for the promotion and protection of world peace,'' he told IPS. ''I therefore cannot ignore Burma, in my political role or in my international peace advocate's role.''

Last week the U.S. Senate passed a joint resolution that would renew for another year the economic sanctions on Burma imposed under the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved an identical resolution Jun. 14. The measure now goes to President George W Bush for consideration. (END/IPS/AP/HD/IP/WD/SI/JS/04)


The Wall Street Journal Wednesday, June 30, 2004


Burma's Future Requires Reconciliation

By Jose Ramos-Horta

The news from Burma goes from bad to worse, fuelling calls for further sanctions. My fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has now been under house arrest for more than a year, following the May 2003 ambush orchestrated by thugs linked to the country's military rulers.

Rangoon's military junta is more isolated than ever, an international pariah on a par with the Stalinist regime of North Korea. The military-run national convention charged with writing a new constitution is thoroughly discredited. None of its 1076 delegates are elected, and the nine political parties that won at least 90% of the seats in the 1990 parliamentary elections are not even represented in the convention.

Under such circumstances, perhaps it's not surprising that well-meaning liberals see further sanctions as the "politically correct" way of forcing the regime to change its ways. But it's questionable if sanctions will really achieve the desired results, and whether they are morally sustainable when weighed against the harm they will inflict upon an already impoverished people.

Burma's economy is in shambles and there is hardly any international commerce, with the exception of illegal trade in opium, gems and timber. Existing sanctions, coupled with corruption and economic mismanagement, have already increased the suffering of its impoverished people.

Rather than intensifying an international boycott that shows no sign of persuading the junta to change its ways, a better strategy would be to make it more vulnerable to foreign pressure by encouraging tourism and foreign investment, and so opening up the still largely closed country to the outside world. After all, if former Indonesian president Suharto had pursued a closed-door policy instead of opening up his country from the 1970s onward, Indonesia would probably be as poor as Burma today and Suharto might even still be in power.

While I understand the reluctance of Western governments to end the sanctions that have already been imposed against Burma, a better strategy would be the immediate lifting of some sanctions coupled with an offer to remove others, if and when there are clear signs of improvement in the human-rights situation and the general political atmosphere in the country. That would be part of a creative strategy to provide incentives and rewards to encourage the junta to make progress on these issues.

It's a strategy in which China, India and Japan can play a vital part -- as three nations that potentially hold the key to bringing about peaceful change in Burma. Because of their geographical position and aid and trading ties, those three Asian giants are in a position to exercise much greater influence over Burma's military rulers, than either the U.S. or EU. And they can hardly complain about supposed outside "meddling" in an Asian problem, as Beijing is sometimes wont to do, if they fail to show leadership in resolving such a pressing problem within their own region.

But are these three nations, and China in particular, interested in using their influence to advance this goal? One can safely assume that Beijing does not share America's interest in advancing democracy around the world, including Burma. But Beijing does share a common interest in a peaceful and stable Burma that is open to investment and trade, and ought to appreciate that the present regime in Rangoon does not further that goal.

China needs to understand that the only guarantee for peace and stability at its southern borders will come from encouraging at least some degree of democracy and freedom in Burma. And if Beijing can play such a constructive role in pressuring North Korea to renounce its nuclear-weapons programs, surely it is not too much to ask that it similarly exercise its influence on Rangoon to extract concessions from the junta.

Foremost amongst these is the immediate release of Ms. Suu Kyi. It is unacceptable that a group of unelected individuals should be able to arrest, release, and re-arrest at will a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. The military should not only free Ms. Suu Kyi but invite her to preside over a widely representative transitional cabinet whose mandate is to manage the transition until new elections are held. And a clear deadline needs to be set for holding those elections by the end of 2005 at the latest.

That timetable is the only hope for averting a major embarrassment in 2006, when Burma is scheduled to take over the leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, one of the world's most respected regional bodies. Already, Burma's mere membership of Asean is causing serious problems. Laos and Cambodia are excluded from the yearly gathering of Southeast Asian and European ministers known as ASEM, because the EU countries have refused to accede to Asean's demand that the regional organization's three most recent member states -- Cambodia, Laos and Burma -- should all be allowed to join ASEM together. And to complicate matters Asean is now threatening to retaliate by blocking the 10 new EU members from joining the ASEM meetings.

That makes little sense, and it would be far better if Asean member states could be persuaded to soften their stance on the issue. Laos and Cambodia should not be penalized by being kept out of ASEM because of the sins of the Burmese military. Nor does it serve Asean's interests to block the new EU members from joining such meetings. However it is merely a foretaste of the embarrassing arguments that would be sure to ensue if the military junta is not replaced by a democratic government by the time Burma takes it turn as head of Asean in 2006.

For there to be any hope of such a swift timetable to democracy, it will be necessary for Ms. Suu Kyi and her colleagues to offer the military some reassurances about their safety and wellbeing under any future elected government. Such reassurances, including a promise not to pursue members of the junta over past abuses, would be a small price to pay for encouraging the military to relinquish power. The democratic opposition in Burma might wish to learn from our own experience in embracing reconciliation. In spite of much violence and suffering over a quarter of a century, the East Timorese have reconciled among themselves and with Indonesia. The post-apartheid reconciliation process in South Africa is another experience it could usefully learn from.

At the same time, the Burmese military should draw reassurance from the examples set in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. All are countries where the military ceded power to elected civilians and yet continues to enjoy a large degree of economic and political privileges and influence. While they may not be perfect examples of democracies, all these countries are far freer and better off today than they were only some 10 years.

Let us remember that even the well-established democracies that now exist in Western countries took several hundred years to evolve. Burma's transition to democracy can, and should, be accomplished far more quickly than that. but to do so will require relying on reconciliation by both sides, rather than the blunt instrument of further international sanctions.

Mr. Ramos-Horta is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and East Timor's senior minister for foreign affairs and cooperation.

Support ETAN, make a secure financial contribution at

Back to July menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu