Saturday, February 28, 2009

Civil Society Representatives Challenge Asean Leaders on Burma

The Irrawaddy News

CHA-AM, Thailand — Burmese issues were raised once again at the 14th Asean Summit in Cha-am, Thailand, this time at Saturday’s midday meeting between representatives of Southeast Asian civil society and the 10 heads of state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

The meeting—termed “historic” by Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan because it was the first time Asean leaders had scheduled a face-to-face meeting with civil society groups—was threatened with a boycott by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Burmese premier Gen Thein Sein because they did not agree with the participation of certain members of the civil society grouping.

The matter was resolved at the 11th hour when two civil society representatives—including Burma’s Khin Ohmar of the Network for Democracy and Development—were barred from attending the meeting.

“This afternoon’s interface meeting between the 10 Asean leaders and civil society groups spread doubt whether the Asean is ready to make Article 1 of the Asean Charter on civil society participation come into reality,” said a press release by three civil society activists, including Khin Ohmar.

But the 20-minute meeting was most notable for the united stance by the civil society representatives against policies of the Burmese military government.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy after the meeting, Wathshlash G. Naidu of Malaysia-based International Women’s Rights Action Watch—Asia Pacific said;

* “We raised the issue of political participation [in Burma].
* We raised the issue of the political [opposition] leadership in Burma being detained and
* we raised the issue of the illegal constitution.”

She said that the civic group had called for the release of all political prisoners in the country, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and had urged Asean members not to recognize the 2010 elections in Burma.

“We want Asean countries to really pay attention to these issues,” she said.

Naidu said that Burmese Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein had read a prepared statement at the meeting, but did not respond to criticisms. (JEG's: do they ever respond? )

According to Naidu, the Rohingya crisis was also highlighted by the civil society representatives at the interface meeting.

On Friday at a foreign ministers’ meeting, the Burmese government for the first time addressed the matter of the Rohingya, saying it would take back any boatpeople who were ascertained to have been born in Burma. However, Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win rejected the term “Rohingya” and would only refer to the ethnic group as “Bengalis.” (JEG's: not a good approach here, if we allow the Rohingya to be returned their lives are in more danger than adrift)

Analysts said that the question of semantics signaled the Burmese junta’s policy of rejecting the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas living in Arakan State as among Burma’s 135 ethnicities.

Earlier on Saturday, a small group of activists held a protest against the Burmese regime in Hua Hin, close to the venue of the Asean Summit. Calling the protest “Peace for Burma,” about 15 human rights activists, most of whom were Thai, held a cycling rally through the coastal town.

“We choose the Burma issue among others in Asean countries because Burma is the hottest issue in the Asean democratization process,”
said a Thai female activist who joined the protest.

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