Burma has in fact been described as the world’s longest-running civil war that has lasted nearly 60 years and sent millions fleeing into Thailand and displaced 500,000 people in Myanmar – a period that saw the tragedy of the transformation of once Asia’s rich country into a basketcase.
Developments in Myanmar can both be interpreted as signs of weakness or consolidation of the repressive, ruthless and mendacious military junta, whether it be the abrupt relocation of the national capital from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw, about 390 kilometres north of Yangon in November 2005 or the construction of four vast hydro-power dams on the Salween River which have already destroyed 232 villagers in the country’s resource-rich east, drove 82,000 people from their homes, triggering a new wave of forced labour and devastating Salween’s ecosystem.
National and international attention is now focused on the date next week, May 27, when the latest period of detention of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi ends after having spent more than 11 of the past 17 years under some form of detention.
Would the Myanmese military junta, which has ruled Myanmar in various guises since 1962, ignored international calls for her release on May 27 and extend her detention as happened last year?
Last week, 59 former heads of state and government took the unprecedented step of issuing an Open Letter to the Myanmar military junta, calling for the immediate release of the Burmese Opposition leader and the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The signatories to the Open Letter included not only former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter, George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton, former Prime Ministers like Margaret Thatcher and John Major (United Kingdom), Kjell Bondevik, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Thorbjorn Jagland (Norway), Poul Rasmussen (Denmark), Paavo Lipponen (Finland), Goran Persson (Sweden), Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell (Canada), Lionel Jospin (France), Mary Robinson (Ireland), Maria Soares (Portugal) but also distinguished Asian personalities, including former Presidents Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos (Philippines), Nobel Prize Prize Laureate Kim Dae Jung (South Korea), Abdulrrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri (Indonesia), Chandra Shekar (India) but also former Prime Ministers, Junichiro Koizumi (Japan), Chuan Leekpai (Thailand), Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan), Lee Hong-Koo (South Korea), V.P. Singh (India) and Ung Huot (Cambodia).
Malaysia provides the “surprise of surprises” in the Open Letter by 59 former President and Prime Ministers –Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad who was also a signatory although he was the man solely responsible for admitting Myanmar into ASEAN exactly a decade ago with a total failure in ASEAN’s “constructive engagement” policy with Myanmar.
Leaders of ASEAN, particularly from the five original ASEAN nations - Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore – should use their collective influence with the Myanmar military junta to publicly call for the immediate and unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi.
If the Myanmese military junta continues to be impervious and contemptuous of regional and international opinion, and Aung San Suu Kyi is served with another extension of her detention next Monday, ASEAN governments, Parliaments and civil societies should make their condemnation loud and clear.
However difficult the long road to restore democracy in Burma, there can be no capitulation in the cause until final victory is achieved.
The next half-year will be very challenging and critical times because of two factors:
The 40th ASEAN Anniversary and 13th ASEAN Summit in Singapore in November 2007, which will adopt the ASEAN Charter with the critical question of whether it will provide for sanctions against an ASEAN member country for being a rogue state completely heedless of the ASEAN spirit and mission; and
Whether a resolution on Burma could secure support to be presented to the United Nations Security Council later this year, now that it has passed the first hurdle of being accepted as an agenda of the Security Council.
I hope the all ASEAN palimentary house, Government and Civil Society can play a more pro-active role in promoting democratization in Burma.